Truth or Consequences

by Alice Adams

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The story opens with the narrator, Emily Ames, reading a gossip column about Carstairs Jones marrying a famous former movie star, and she decides that this man must be the same Car Jones whom she knew many years earlier. She then recounts the history of that extraordinary spring when she first met Car Jones in the seventh grade. She relives the day when she played “truth or consequences” with friends and said that she would rather kiss Car Jones than be eaten alive by ants.

Emily and her mother moved to the university town of Hilton the fall before the principal action of the story takes place. Emily felt like an outsider in this town. As a recent transplant from the North to the South, she felt removed from her classmates; at eleven years of age, she was younger than her seventh-grade classmates; and the fact that her mother was rich embarrassed Emily, who felt “more freakish than advantageous.” She felt socially insecure and approached the playground always with excited dread. On one particular April day, she was asked to play truth or consequences with the popular girls. After some innocuous questions, they sprang the big question on her: Would she rather be covered with honey and eaten alive by ants in the desert, or kiss Car Jones? When Emily said that she would prefer the kiss, the other children began to tease her. She did not feel overly embarrassed by the attention, however, because she felt that she had suddenly been discovered after months of invisibility.

If Emily felt socially insecure, Car felt socially removed. The quintessential outsider, he was fourteen, the tallest, the most easily bored, and the most rebellious boy in the class. He was also a “truck child”—the offspring of people living on the farms surrounding the town who sent their children to school in yellow trucks. To Emily, Car was an abnormal person. The narrator recalls him as representing dark and strange forces, although she herself had just come into the light. Although the young Emily could not afford to have anything to do with Car, her literal mind acknowledged a certain obligation. After a number of notes were sent from Car to Emily, a rendezvous was planned: They were to meet in a vacant lot beside the school on a Saturday morning.

The meeting was not what Emily expected. Car was rude and surly; his teeth were stained and his hands dirty. He pulled Emily by her hair, planted a kiss on her, and walked off with a look of pure rage.

When Emily returned home, her mother told her that a boy called. Emily worried that it was Car, but it was Harry McGinnis, a glowing, golden boy. The narrator says that she felt saved because she was normal after all and belonged in the world of light and lightheartedness. Car Jones had not altered her in any way. Emily was embarrassed about seeing Car at school the next week, but to her relief he was not there. After he demanded to be placed in another class, he took a test and was reassigned to the high school sophomore class. Emily never saw him again but continued to hear rumors about him: He attended the university, he went “all the way” with a high school girl, he wrote a play as an English graduate student, and he turned down admission into a fraternity.

The story closes with Emily’s conjectures about Car’s life. She tries to imagine what his background was really like, what his innermost thoughts were. She concludes that he does not think about the past, that he never thinks about having been a truck child or one of the deprived. However, the story ends with the narrator thinking that perhaps Car may be as haunted by the past as she has been.

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