Channel 15 ½ by Jessica Laurel Kane
Channel 15 ½ by Jessica Laurel Kane
Robert Baker had the flu, so he stayed home from work. He was told by his wife and also by his doctor to rest. But he couldn’t. He tossed and he turned and then gave up to watch TV in the living room.
He flipped through the stations at turbo speed, until the glow of the screen stole the attention from his discomfort. Advertisements always relaxed Robert Baker — shiny automobiles, crunchy crackers, velvety bathroom tissue — he sighed with relief scrolling quickly through station after station, until something jarred him: a man on the news that looked exactly like him. He’d been scrolling so fast, his fingers had already taken him to the next station before he stopped to ponder to himself: That man… looked quite like me!
He flipped forwards and backwards again and again catching glimpses of the man, but kept missing the channel. “He’s wearing the shirt I wore yesterday,” Robert Baker said out loud. “I’m sure of it!”
He then pressed as hard as he could on the arrow button and dialed slowly. But nothing. Then he pressed the button only half way down. And that’s when he discovered it: a channel he’d never known about before.
“Channel 15 ½?” Robert Baker said to himself, in utter disbelief.
Sure enough, there on channel 15 ½, was Robert Baker.
He turned the volume higher.
“Greta Johnson, thank you so much for being here.”
“Yes. Hello. Thank you for having me, Stan. I saw Robert Baker yesterday. I was at the supermarket and I sneezed within an arm’s-length of him, but Robert Baker said nothing. Not a bless you, not a smile or nod... Nothing.”
The news anchor looked disappointed.
“Greta Johnson?” Robert Baker wondered to himself. “Who is this woman? I’ve never seen her before in my life! I was there buying Pepto-Bismol! I had the flu, for god’s sake!”
“I’m so sorry that happened to you, Greta,” said the news anchor. “Joining us next, we have Robert Baker’s third grade teacher, who may be able to shed light on why Robert Baker turned out the way he did. Thank you for being here.”
“Mrs. Kennerdale!?” Robert Baker gasped.
“Yes. It’s true. I was Robert Baker’s third grade teacher. And Robert Baker pretended to read books just to get the sticker.”
The newscaster shook his head. “What a shame. But why?”
“I wish I had answers, Stan. I don’t.”
“When we return, we’ll meet with one of Robert Baker’s co-workers, hoping to dig a little further into this seemingly endless bottom of things.
Stay tuned for more on… Robert Baker TV.”
“Robert Baker TV?!”
In just a few unfathomable moments, Robert Baker realized that Channel 15 ½ was a station all about him. He'd always suspected people were judging him unfairly, but he had no idea the extent of it —that an entire network was devoted to just how unlikable he was!
Robert Baker sat at the edge of his seat and watched one upset person after another:
“I work in the cubical next to Robert Baker. Last month, he said something very hurtful. I don’t exactly remember what. But I didn’t sleep that night. Not a minute.”
“Did you tell him?”
“No. But now I'm telling the world: Robert Baker is not a thoughtful person. Not at all.”
“Up next, footage of a traffic incident last week involving Robert Baker.”
Woman: “You see that white car in front of my minivan? That’s Robert Baker’s vehicle. He was driving very slowly in front of me, on purpose I might add, which caused a delay in getting to urgent care!”
How did I know she was ill!? Robert Baker thought.I was trying to teach her a lesson! She was driving like a maniac!”
Robert Baker’s high school sweetheart:
“I have been in primal scream therapy for over a decade because of what Robert Baker did to me in high school.”
“Only if you’re comfortable doing so, might you share what happened?”
“I told him my secret thoughts and he... snored.”
“I’m so sorry.”
“I had thought we’d had a nice go at it,” mumbled Robert Baker in disbelief.
More and more people expressed their outrage:
“It was a crosswalk! I had the right-a-way! But, not according to Robert Baker!”
“It was the last coffee in the carafe! If it had been me, I would have split it. Not Robert Baker!”
Robert Baker was so beside himself, he no longer felt at ease in his own home. “How could this be? I'm not a bad guy!!! Not to me, I'm not!”
He grabbed his bathrobe and stumbled out his door, hobbling down the street, disheveled, with laces untied – to where, he wasn’t sure – only to prove to anyone he passed that he was kind and courteous.
Robert Baker nodded and smiled every which way, hoping someone might say something kind about him on Channel 15 ½. He then found a park bench, and as fast as he could, he searched for channel 15 ½ on his phone, hoping the news about him might have improved. Rather quickly, he managed to find the station online. Then his face turned pale: there, on the screen, was his wife.
“Well, he is a bit messy. He leaves his socks lying about, assuming I’ll pick them up and wash them… and fold them. It’s a lot of work... And I wish he’d improve with aiming in the toilet. But…he’s not all terrible.”
“Are you sure?”
“Well, he did throw away a perfectly good loaf of bread this morning.”
“Well, three good pieces, because it didn't fit into the bread box the way he wanted.”
“What a waster!”
“Yes, I suppose so.”
“The entire world hates me,” cried Robert Baker. “Even my own wife!”
“Excuse me, Mrs. Baker, for the interruption. But we have breaking news. It seems something is more wrong with Robert Baker than usual!”
The newscaster flashed to video footage of Robert Baker staggering through the streets, looking hysterical.
“Hi Stan. We’re downtown with a woman who has just been accosted by Robert Baker…”
“Not ten minutes ago, Robert Baker yelled hello to me and then carried my child across the street without my permission, claiming he was trying to help. It was very disturbing. My son won’t stop crying!”
“If anyone has information about Robert Baker’s whereabouts, please press *Robert on your phone right away..!”
“Whoa! Calls are already flying in!”
Robert Baker was inconsolable. His petrified fingers dialed *Robert as fast as they could.
“Robert Baker TV,” someone answered. “What’s your lead?”
“I... am… Robert Baker.”
“We have unprecedented news,” the anchor announced. “Robert Baker is on the line. The…Robert Baker!”
Robert Baker could now hear his own voice on the air:
“Why are you talking about me?” he cried. “I try my best. I’ve had the flu, and before that, a great deal of heartache! I haven’t noticed much around me, I suppose, because I’ve been thinking about things most of my life! I’m a very sad man, if you must know! Not much has gone my way…!”
Robert Baker then heard sirens.
Ticker tape flashed across the screen: Robert Baker Being Pursued!
“This is unprecedented. Don’t move, Robert Baker. We will be there in just a moment!”
“What? Why? What are you going to do with me?!”
“Caller 17, you’re on the air.”
“Robert Baker is presently running through the park. Yes, I see him clearly… running with his bathrobe ajar toward Main Street and Seventh!”
“Who are you???” Robert Baker screamed into his phone. “Why are you following me? I’m sorry I’m not perfect! I'm doing the best I can!! Why has nobody bothered to think about me?? What kind of a channel do you run??!! Picking on people! Turning their loved ones against them!?”
Robert Baker ran and ran and ran. Until suddenly, he felt a sharp pain on the side of his face.
“I’ve been wounded!” he sobbed, before falling to the ground.
Then, in the midst of sobbing, he heard his wife’s voice: “Wake up, wake up, Robert!”
In a moment, he realized the voice belonged to his wife, and that he was sitting upright on the floor of his living room.
“Mavis! You struck me!”
“Forgive me, Dear, but you were inconsolable!”
“You… betrayed me!”
“What on earth are you talking about?”
“You told them I don’t put away my socks!”
“Told who, Robert?”
“The man… on channel 15 ½!”
“Channel 15 ½?”
Robert Baker grabbed the remote and started scrolling.
“On Robert Baker TV,” he cried. “The channel all about me!”
“I should call the doctor. I believe you’ve spiked a fever!”
“Everyone is very, very upset with me, Mavis! The entire station is all about how horrid I am!”
“It was only a nightmare, Dear.”
“Well, I need to be sure.”
After passing channel 15 and 16 several times, forwards and back, Robert Baker settled on believing his wife, that it had been just a bad dream.
“Do people think about me?” he asked his wife softly, still out of breath.
“Not so much, Dear.”
“Are you sure?”
“Do you think about me?”
“Not terribly often. Nothing to worry about.”
But what if all those people had a point about me, Mavis? What if I am a horrible person?”
“Oh, darling. Nobody is perfect. I suspect we all have a channel 15 ½ somewhere.”
“Maybe you're right.”
“Perhaps if there's anything to learn from all this, Robert, it's to give people a little more understanding. I think really, we’re all doing the best we can.”
“You're very wise, my flower.”
Robert Baker smiled and hugged his wife. And then, instead of lying back down on the couch, he picked up his dirty socks from the floor. “I’m sorry if I’m a mess, my dear. I’ll try to be more thoughtful.”
“It’s all right, Robert.”
And from then on, Robert Baker actually became a bit different. He wasn’t in as much of a rush. Instead of cursing at people in traffic, or ignoring them while he privately mulled over injustices from his past, he made a point of noticing the goings on around him. He became curious of what others might be going through in their lives, and liked to imagine the looks on their faces if they too one day discovered their own channel 15 ½. In doing so, he found a tenderness for others. And almost without effort, he began lending people a smile and even a helping hand, if they needed one. And before long, Robert Baker became a much happier person. And, funny, so did the people around him.