THE ICE WAGON GOING DOWN THE STREET
Now that they are out of world affairs and back where they started, Peter Frazier’s wife says, ‘‘Everybody else did well in the international thing except us.’’
‘‘You have to be crooked,’’ he tells her.
‘‘Or smart. Pity we weren’t.’’
It is Sunday morning. They sit in the kitchen, drinking their coffee, slowly, remembering the past. They say the names of people as if they were magic. Peter thinks, Agnes Brusen, but there are hundreds of other names. As a private married joke, Peter and Sheilah wear the silk dressing gowns they bought in Hong Kong. Each thinks the other a peacock, rather splendid, but they pretend the dressing gowns are silly and worn in fun.
Peter and Sheilah and their two daughters, Sandra and Jennifer, are visiting Peter’s unmarried sister, Lucille. They have been Lucille’s guests seventeen weeks, ever since they returned to Toronto from the Far East. Their big old steamer trunk blocks a corner of the kitchen, making a problem of the refrigerator door; but even Lucille says the trunk may as well stay where it is, for the present. The Fraziers’ future is so unsettled; everything is still in the air.
Lucille has given her bedroom to her two nieces, and sleeps on a camp cot in the hall. The parents have the living-room divan. They have no privileges here; they sleep after Lucille has seen the last television show that interests her. In the hall closet their clothes are crushed by winter overcoats. They know they are being judged for the first time. Sandra and Jennifer are waiting for Sheilah and Peter to decide. They are waiting to learn where these exotic parents will fly to next. What sort of climate will Sheilah consider? What job will Peter consent to accept? When the parents are ready, the children will make a decision of their own. It is just possible that Sandra and Jennifer will choose to stay with their aunt.
The peacock parents are watched by wrens. Lucille and her nieces are much the same – sandy-colored, proudly plain. Neither of the girls has the father’s insouciance or the mother’s appearance – her height, her carriage, her thick hair and sky-blue eyes. The children are more cautious than their parents; more Canadian. When they saw their aunt’s apartment they had been away from Canada nine years, ever since they were two and four; and Jennifer, the elder, said, ‘‘Well, now we’re home.’’ Her voice is nasal and flat. Where did she learn that voice? And why should this be home? Peter’s answer to anything about his mystifying children is, ‘‘It must be in the blood.’’
On Sunday morning Lucille takes her nieces to church. It seems to be the only condition she imposes on her relations: The children must be decent. The girls go willingly, with their new hats and purses and gloves and coral bracelets and strings of pearls. The parents, ramshackle, sleepy, dim in the brain because it is Sunday, sit down to their coffee and privacy and talk of the past.
‘‘We weren’t crooked,’’ says Peter. ‘‘We weren’t even smart.’’
Sheilah’s head bobs up; she is no drowner. It is wrong to say they have nothing to show for time. Sheilah has the Balenciaga. It is a black afternoon dress, stiff and boned at the waist, long for the fashions of now, but neither Sheilah nor Peter would change a thread. The Balenciaga is their talisman, their treasure; and after they remember it they touch hands and think that the years are not behind them but hazy and marvelous and still to be lived.
The first place they went to was Paris. In the early fifties the pick of the international jobs was there. Peter had inherited the last scrap of money he knew he was ever likely to see, and it was enough to get them over: Sheilah and Peter and the babies and the steamer trunk. To their joy and astonishment they had money in the bank. They said to each other, ‘‘It should last a year.’’ Peter was fastidious about the new job; he hadn’t come all this distance to accept just anything. In Paris he met Hugh Taylor, who was earning enough smuggling gasoline to keep his wife in Paris and a girl in Rome. That impressed Peter, because he remembered Taylor as a sour scholarship student without the slightest talent for life. Taylor had a job, of course. He hadn’t said to himself, I’ll go over to Europe and smuggle gasoline. It gave Peter an idea; he saw the shape of things. First you catch your fish. Later, at an international party, he met Johnny Hertzberg, who told him Germany was the place. Hertzberg said that anyone who came out of Germany broke now was too stupid to be here, and deserved to be back home at a desk. Peter nodded, as if he had already thought of that. He began to think about Germany. Paris was fine for a holiday, but it had been picked clean. Yes, Germany. His money was running low. He thought about Germany quite a lot.
That winter was moist and delicate; so fragile that they daren’t speak of it now. There seemed to be plenty of everything and plenty of time. They were living the dream of a marriage, the fabric uncut, nothing slashed or spoiled. All winter they spent their money, and went to parties, and talked about Peter’s future job. It lasted four months. They spent their money, lived in the future, and were never as happy again.
After four months they were suddenly moved away from Paris, but not to Germany – to Geneva. Peter thinks it was because of the incident at the Trudeau wedding at the Ritz. Paul Trudeau was a French-Canadian Peter had known at school and in the Navy. Trudeau had turned into a snob, proud of his career and his Paris connections. He tried to make the difference felt, but Peter thought the difference was only for strangers. At the wedding reception Peter lay down on the floor and said he was dead. He held a white azalea in a brass pot on his chest, and sang, ‘‘Oh, hear us when we cry to Thee for those in peril on the sea.’’ Sheilah bent over him and said, ‘‘Peter, darling, get up. Pete, listen, every single person who can do something for you is in this room. If you love me, you’ll get up.’’
‘‘I do love you,’’ he said, ready to engage in a serious conversation. ‘‘She’s so beautiful,’’ he told a second face. ‘‘She’s nearly as tall as I am. Shewas a model in London. I met her over in London in the war. I met her there in the war.’’ He lay on his back with the azalea on his chest, explaining their history. A waiter took the brass pot away, and after Peter had been hauled to his feet he knocked the waiter down. Trudeau’s bride, who was freshly out of an Ursuline convent, became hysterical; and even though Paul Trudeau and Peter were old acquaintances, Trudeau never spoke to him again. Peter says now that French-Canadians always have that bit of spite. He says Trudeau asked the embassy to interfere. Luckily, back home there were still a few people to whom the name ‘‘Frazier’’ meant something, and it was to these people that Peter appealed. He wrote letters saying that a French-Canadian combine was preventing his getting a decent job, and could anything be done? No one answered directly, but it was clear that what they settled for was exile to Geneva: a season of meditation and remorse, as he explained to Sheilah, and it was managed tactfully, through Lucille. Lucille wrote that a friend of hers, May Fergus, now a secretary in Geneva, had heard about a job. The job was filing pictures in the information service of an international agency in the Palais des Nations. The pay was so-so, but Lucille thought Peter must be getting fed up doing nothing.
Peter often asks his sister now who put her up to it—what important person told her to write that letter suggesting Peter go to Geneva?
‘‘Nobody,’’ says Lucille. ‘‘I mean, nobody in the way you
mean. I really did have this girl friend working there, and I knew you must be running through your money pretty fast in Paris.’’
‘‘It must have been somebody pretty high up,’’ Peter says. He looks at his sister admiringly, as he has often looked at his wife.
Copyright © 1996 by Mavis Gallant; Introduction by Francine Prose. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.