What a journey this story has taken! The final published version of this piece at the link above ended up being twice the length of the original (reproduced below this essay). The editors at Every Day Fiction were possibly interested in publishing it, except that they didn’t like the idea of “misleading” the reader about the wagon, which is precisely what the original version did. In fact, that was the essence of the story. In addition, they thought the premise itself was unbelievable because I had made Debra a first-grader and the argument was that no parent would permit a child that young to walk to school by herself.
Naturally, this threw me for a loop, because, of course, the child in the story was me, and I was not a first-grader but a kindergartner when it happened. Where I grew up in small-town New England, lots of kids walked to school by themselves. There was no such thing as blue-collar flex time so you could drive your kids to school – and many parents took the bus to work because they didn’t have a car, anyway. However, I was certainly willing to grant that we live in a different time, and that perhaps the premise would seem implausible to modern readers, so I re-wrote it to include details that would make it obvious that the story took place in an earlier era.
They still didn’t like it. The issue remained of Debra not appearing to recognize the wagon, which naturally made little sense in their interpretation of the story. I frankly had no idea what to do about this, because my intention for the piece was entirely at odds with their reading of it. I had been attempting to convey the thoughts and emotions of a little girl who has been given a great new responsibility and is trying very hard to behave herself as her mother would wish. It’s not that she doesn’t recognize the wagon – she merely pretends not to because she doesn’t want her mother to think she’s only being careful because she knows she’s being watched. The whole story development – where she keeps looking anxiously over her shoulder to see if the wagon is still following, how she exaggerates her caution in crossing the street, even her final sprint at the end when the pressure becomes too much for her – centers around this concept. What I thought was clever about it was not the fact that it draws the reader down a false path, but that if you reach the end and look back on it, it turns out that the story details were true and accurate all along. The tension was real – except its source was not the wagon, but the feelings of the little girl.
Anyway, they asked for another rewrite, and suggested that I make the story more about Debra and her mother. I’ll admit that this caused me considerable consternation. On the one hand, it was a challenge, and I’m certainly not one to run from a battle. On the other hand, I had no particular interest in writing the story that way. It just didn’t feel like me. It took me longer to transform this simple vignette into heartwarming family fiction than the original story took to write! I’m not disappointed in the way it turned out, although it is a bit on the sentimental side. But I do still believe the original version has its charms – although I’m willing to concede that I may be the only one who thinks so!
It was, however, an interesting lesson. First, because sometimes it’s easy to forget that what I think is obvious as a writer doesn’t necessarily come across to a reader the way I intended it. Editors are usually right, and if these ones weren’t getting it, chances are pretty good lots of other people would have misread my original story, too. And second, because it was my first real experience writing to someone else’s specifications. I mean, sure, I’ve had to write papers on topics that haven’t particularly interested me – but no one has ever told me how to write them. And ultimately, I feel that this is something I should be able to do, even if I don’t enjoy it very much. As wonderful as it is to exercise total control over my fiction, a writer who knows their craft should have the capacity to create work that someone else defines. So I suppose you might say that I, too, took a journey of transformation – and it’s to be hoped that I came out a better writer at the end of it.
YELLOW WAGON (Original Version)
“Right on Orange, left on Revere,” Debra repeated to herself for the dozenth time, kicking away the crisp dead leaves that snapped at her feet like so many untrained puppies. First grade wasn’t like kindergarten; the teachers got mad if you were late. Her mom would be mad, too, if she got lost along the way.
She reached the end of her street and hung a hard right, ignoring the noise of the engine she heard revving behind her. It was only a block more to the light, and when she reached it she stopped dead, waiting cautiously for the green, both feet planted firmly on the sidewalk, not even touching the curb. When her turn came she looked both ways, repeating and exaggerating the motion, and catching in consequence a glimpse of a yellow station wagon with wood paneling that had drawn to a seemingly casual halt on the side of the road behind her.
She crossed hurriedly, shifting the schoolbag in her left hand while gripping the lunchbox more tightly in her right, swinging both in steady rhythm as she walked. Halfway down the block she knelt suddenly and fiddled with her shoelaces. Peeking over her shoulder as she bent forward, she spotted it again, the yellow wagon, which had rounded the corner after her and was still following at a respectful distance.
With grim determination she pressed on, on towards the schoolyard, now only a few blocks away. She could hear the cries of the kids on the playground, see the bright orange sash of the crossing-guard directing traffic, smell the exhaust of the ancient school buses that brought the children who lived on the far side of town. And then suddenly she was on the last block and she was running, running towards the final intersection, the one guarded by the gentle white-haired man with the threatening crimson sign, and then she had flown across it and was vanishing safely into the thick crowd of students and teachers. She turned, breathless, and witnessed the yellow wagon retreating cautiously down the street, crawling silently away as if at last losing interest in the subject of its persistent pursuit.
She remained alert that afternoon; negotiated the crosswalks with care and kept watch for the stealthy wagon, but discerned no sign of it. She sighed with relief as she at last climbed the steps of the porch on which her mother stood happily waving her home.
“How was your day, sweetheart?” she inquired cheerfully. “Were you scared walking to school by yourself?”
“Nope,” Debra replied without hesitation.
“Did you remember to look both ways and cross with the light?”
“Yes, Mom,” she said, smiling, confident that her mother already knew the answer to that question.
“So you’ll be all right walking, then, if I take the car to my new job tomorrow?”
“Of course,” Debra answered. She glanced appreciatively at it, the familiar yellow station wagon with the wood paneling, parked, as always, comfortably in front of their house.