by Steve Joos
A troubled teen's reaction to a rerun TV show causes concern when they parallel reality.
"This is the city. Los Angeles, California."
Sgt. Friday's grim monotone caught Nancy Gallagher's ear as she clomped past the community college TV lounge that late fall evening en route to her graduate school extension class. She thought of her cousin, Tim Fenton, and mused that he was probably in front of his family's television, watching Joe Friday or some other video crime-buster put away the bad guys.
“What was so funny earlier tonight?" a voice which had become familiar recently asked Nancy during a break.
"Oh, I passed a TV coming in here," she told Hannah Hutchinson, Tim's English teacher. "They had Dragnet on and I just thought to myself 'I know where Tim is.'"
The two teachers shared a giggle while talking about their mutual student.
"He'd better be pouring over his American Literature and working on his journal," Mrs. Hutchinson said. Even though they taught different subjects, "Mrs. Hutch" had taken Nancy under her wing at Foxwood High. The massive public high school would be a daunting place for anyone, especially a recent college graduate like Miss Gallagher, whose History charges included her first cousin.
"When we covering Edgar Allen Poe, I had my classes write a story along the lines of Poe," she told Nancy during a break. "Tim writes this piece about a bunch of kids who get trapped in a class room and all die while being stared down by an angry poster of the Presidents. He ends it with these police officers talking and noticing the poster. When he read it to the class, Tim finished by doing this eerie pipe organ impression going 'dum-de-dum-dum!"
Sounds like him, Nancy thought.
“I made a note on his paper, 'Adam-12 meets Night Gallery. How cool,'” the older teacher chuckled.
When she returned home, Nancy noticed that Tim was not in the hallway watching for her.
"Is Tim OK?" Sandy Clark, Nancy's roommate, asked.
"As far as I know, he is. How come?"
"He wasn't at his perch in the hallway when I came home."
"Hmmm," Nancy said, going into the living room of their apartment. She checked the supplement next to their television and then shrugged.
"I know what he should be doing," she said with a mischeivous grin.
Whatever Tim was doing, his cousin was more than a little concerned as she drove him to school the next day.
"Are you all right Tim?" she asked.
"Sure. How come?"
"Sandy missed you last night and wondered how you were doing."
"I'm doing fine. I just had a lot of homework. Mrs. Hutch wants to see our journals today and there was something I needed to add in a hurry."
"Well, I was kind of spooked about something I saw on TV last night."
Nancy was taken aback slightly. What would Tim have possibly seen on TV that might have spooked him? He doesn't watch anything spooky. A little violent at times, but not spooky.
"Hey Nancy, got a minute?" Mrs. Hutchinson asked later that day.
"What's the matter?" the younger teacher stammered.
"It's Tim. I asked to see his classes' journals today,"
"He said he worked on that last night."
"And he did," Mrs. Hutchinson quickly replied. "It's what he wrote that bothered me. Here, take a look."
Nancy took a copy of the entry and read the highlighted portions later in the day.
"On TV last night, on one of my favorite shows, there was this kid," Tim wrote. "He tossed acid on another kid's jacket at the movies and then threatened a bunch of kids at a party with this hand grenade. I sort of saw myself as this kid."
Nancy spent the rest of the week uncertain of what her cousin might do and why he would feel this way. School hadn't been fun for him, but resorting to that kind of violence?
"Why would I do that?" Tim responded when Nancy asked him about the journal. "I felt like that kid, so what?"
"I don't want you to do something irrational," Nancy said. "I know what you're going through and I worry about you. Mrs. Hutchinson worries about you. There are people who are concerned about you."
Tim shrugged and went about his odd jobs around the apartment complex where his mother worked as a manager, gathering lost toys and returning them to their rightful owners.
"What you got there?" Sandy asked him one night.
"Some little toy soldiers," replied Tim. "I pick them up and try to return them to their rightful owners."
Sandy smiled, then turned serious.
"I talked to Randy," she said. "He won't be needing anyone this weekend, but he might be looking for some help with the games later this season. So keep in touch.”
Tim nodded, then picked up a plastic hand grenade.
"Billy Kozlowski," he murmured to himself. "Guess I'll drop it off on my way to the show Friday night."
A trip to the movies would be a relief for Tim after his journal entry came back. What was with Nancy and Mrs. Hutchinson anyway? I saw myself in a kid who went sour on Dragnet Monday night, so what? He had a chemistry set in his garage and an arsenal in his bedroom. I don't take chemistry and the only arsenal I have is out of Billy Kozlowski's toy box.
Things got even worse over the next few days, as talk of a record party at Julie Windsor's house on Friday started circulating. Tim heard it and shrugged it off, while Nancy and his other teachers watched for signs of disgust and outright anger from Tim.
A record party. Like the one the kid on TV crashed, explosive device in hand.
He seemed to be all right, but whenever students around Tim talked about their plans for the weekend, a look partly sad, partly angry crossed his face. And it was noticed.
“Just where are you going?” Alice Fenton demanded of her son as he left the apartment Friday night.
"To the show,” Tim replied.
“Well, I have to stop by Kozlowski’s and give Billy his toy back.”
“You’re not going anywhere else?”
“All right then, but you be home as soon as you can after that movie lets out. Your cousin called and told me about what was going on with you. I don’t want you getting into any trouble. What’s that in your pocket?”
Tim showed his mother a breath freshener he was taking with him and then walked to the Cineplex not far from his home, Sandy’s radio commercials for the attractions ringing through his mind.
Once inside, though, Tim found himself behind two classmates who kept walking slowly and chit-chatting all the way to the screens. The girl looked back at him annoyed.
The couple kept giggling and chatting, while Tim kept getting more and more annoyed. Finally, they went into different theaters, where they enjoyed their respective movies.
Before leaving, Tim asked a classmate who worked at the refreshment stand about getting a job application. She sent him to the manager’s office, where he filled out the form and talked with the manager for a bit.
Nothing now, but stay in touch.
Tim reprised the movie’s theme song as he walked home, making a litany of gestures as he recounted the adventures he’d just witnessed on the silver screen, oblivious to the police cruiser pulling up beside him.
“Are you Timothy Fenton?” one officer asked, rolling down the squad car window.
“Yes,” Tim stammered.
“Where are you heading?”
“Starrick Apartments, over on Mulberry.”
“Been anywhere else?”
“Stopped at one of the apartments.”
The officer then left his car and asked Tim to lean against it, frisking him. Nothing suspicious was found. Then he asked Tim to get in the car.
“You don’t have any weapons?”
“Why, no sir!”
“You’re not going to try and crash any parties or anything, are you?”
“No,” Tim replied, desperately trying to hide his exasperation.
“A security guard from Foxwood High School called us,” the officer said. “A few of your teachers were concerned about some things you had written for a class and were worried you might do something violent. We don’t want that to happen and just trying to make sure it doesn’t.”
Tim and the officers retraced his steps, with Tim getting a complement from Mrs. Kozlowski for finding one of Billy’s favorite toys. By that time, the other patrolman had recognized Tim as a student at Foxwood High and recalled something one of the security guards there had said about him. They asked Tim a question before dropping him off at home.
Nancy, Sandy, Mrs. Hutchinson and his mom were waiting for him in the manager’s apartment.
“Did any of you call the cops on me?” he asked nervously.
“Tim, we were worried,” Nancy said.
“What you wrote in your journal young man,” Mrs. Fenton growled.
Half-apologetically, Mrs. Hutchinson expressed her concerns about Tim’s identification with the boy in the rerun and what he had done, adding that they were afraid that some of the evening’s events seemed to parallel the story’s.
“That?” Tim asked incredulously. He then not only recapped the TV episode, but also pointed out where he and the perpetrator differed. The women looked around a bit and then apologized for misunderstanding, but not before reminding Tim that they were there if he needed to talk to somebody.
As they left, Nancy stopped to ask a question.
“What were the officers asking you before you came in?”
“A question about baseball.”
I should have known, Nancy thought to herself.
Tim scratched his head while watching the women leave.
“They think I take TV too seriously?” he thought to himself. “Dragnet’s not even that violent!”