“Have you sent in for your decoder ring?”
by Rob Hunter
“Clunk, rattle, rattle, rattle,” said the iron frying pan as it galloped across the floor and dived under the rug where it made a large lump. Honeybunny, the Kunkle family dog, jumped up on the couch and began to bark.
“Sorry, Mom. I know I should be concentrating. I forgot about the frying pan.” The frying pan emerged from its rug tunnel and huddled under the couch. Betty—a rather pretty little girl—gave the frying pan an intense look.
“Zoop,” said the frying pan as it leaped back up on the wall. Honeybunny wagged her tail.
“Ah... that’s better,” said Mr. Kunkle, “a place for everything and everything in its place.”
“Now, if only it would stay there, exactly three feet four-and-a-half inches from the floor, so we could find it when it is omelette time,” said Mrs. Kunkle. The Big Iron Skillet (or frying pan) tended to roam and the Kunkles had to sneak up on it whenever they wanted to cook an omelette. The Kunkles loved omelettes. Honeybunny loved omelettes, too.
Betty Kunkle’s unusual ability was first remarked upon by her fellow Brownie Scouts when they became hopelessly lost during a camping trip―all their compass needles pointed at Betty. Fortunately for the Browntown Ocelots, Betty had at some point returned to the bus to change into her old red sneakers. Coincidentally, Betty was facing north when the Ocelots again checked their compasses. Otherwise, the girls might never have been seen again. The Ocelots climbed on board the bus and went home.
To celebrate the discovery of her daughter’s hidden talent, Madge Kunkle, Betty’s mother, knitted her a sweater with a recycling symbol on the front and the back. “Now everybody will know it is you,” she said. After that, in Browntown where everybody was called Kunkle, the Kunkle child was known as “Magnetic Betty.”
Now, if you have traveled widely and experienced life in all its many flavors you might have met another family named Kunkle. This family is not that family. Our Kunkles live in Browntown, where almost everybody is a Kunkle. This is why the Browntown Kunkles call one another by their first names. Or middle names. Or nicknames or street addresses. And sometimes—for there are a lot of Bobs and Sallys and Gladyses and Teds in Browntown, where Kunkle-ness abounds—by their cell phone numbers.
Many, many years ago when the Earth was still flat with corners and edges, and not round like a pizza pie as it is today, and not spherical like a big blue-green ball as it looks on TV, a wandering band of ancient Kunkles moved in after the Browns—the pioneer settlers of Browntown—left for Australia. The Browns had gone to see the kangaroos and left the town empty. “Just the place,” said the ancient Kunkles, and they settled right in and the Browns made themselves at home in far Australia. The Browns and the kangaroos never tired of watching each other and the Browns never came back.
It was Sunday, after their customary turkey dinner, and the Kunkle family was gathered around their living room radio. Tonight was the Browntown Symphony’s premiere performance of Blow your Nose in a Garden Hose by Piotr Ilyich Kunkle, the great composer, and the Kunkles had fallen asleep in various poses of cultural uplift, for they had popped in their earplugs to keep the music out. They turned the radio up loud, for Piotr Ilyich Kunkle lived two blocks down and one house over from the Kunkle family and it would have been rude not to listen.
Magnetic Betty rubbed her eyes and looked sleepily up at her father and said, “That music is awful, Dad. Why do we have to listen to the Browntown Symphony?”
“Because it is good for us,” her father answered. “Ouch, I have a kink in my neck.” Mister Kunkle’s head had fallen forward as he dozed so that his chin rested on his clavicle.
Now, this is not a part of the story so there won’t be any questions later on, but you should know that the clavicle is that funny spot right where your chin ends up when you are checking for a blob of escaped cranberry relish after a big, big meal. If you were a chicken or a turkey you would call this your wishbone and make a wish.
“WHAT?” Betty shouted. In the background the radio blared with one of the louder parts of Blow Your Nose in a Garden Hose.
“GOOD FOR YOU,” her father shouted in return. He picked his chin up from his clavicle and retrieved a magazine which had fallen from his lap as he dozed.
“PENNSYLVANIA,” Mrs. Kunkle shrieked. She had spied the magazine in her husband’s hand and mistakenly thought that he was doing a crossword puzzle.
“EVERYBODY! TAKE YOUR EARPLUGS OUT,” Betty yelled.
“Zoop!” An electric toaster unplugged itself from its socket in the kitchen and flew into the living room where it nuzzled Betty and wrapped its cord around her legs. The toaster purred. Betty Kunkle, otherwise a normal, healthy girl, had a problem with household appliances.
“Betty,” said Betty’s mother as she removed her earplugs, “...the toaster, ignore it, please. It just wants attention. Encourage it and soon we’ll have bread crumbs everywhere.”
Betty poked the toaster under a couch with her toe. Betty was fond of the toaster and hoped it would stay out of sight. The toaster hopped right back out again and into her lap. “Oh... brollyflogger,” said Betty.
“Language, Betty. Language,” said Mrs. Kunkle.
“Well,” said Mr. Kunkel, “That is surely interesting.”
“What is that, dear?” said Mrs. Kunkl.
“Zip, whir, thwack,” said a large iron frying pan as it flew across the room and banged into the wall. The breeze created by the frying pan ruffled Mrs. Kunkle’s hair and flipped the pages of the magazine Mr. Kunkel was reading, causing him to lose his place.
“Betty,” said Mr. Kunkle as he leafed back to find the page he had been reading. “Not now. Mommy and I are having a conversation.”
“What was that again, dear?” said Mrs. Kunkle.
“A frying pan, Mom,” said Betty. “The Big Iron Skillet.”
“I was speaking to your father, darling. Run along and practice your lesson.” Mrs. Kunkle again addressed Mr. Kunkle who had returned to his reading, “You said something was interesting in your magazine, Walter. Certainly it can’t be that Dubrovsky’s is having another special on cold cuts. That was last week.”
“Interesting. That is what I said—interesting.” Mr. Kunkle pointed to an article in Scientific American, the magazine he had been reading. “See?” Mr. Kunkle held up the magazine, folded to show a picture of the Earth with lines drawn sprouting out of it in bigger and bigger circles. “The lines are lines of magnetic force,” Mr. Kunkle said. “Additionally, I don’t believe that Dubrovsky’s advertises their luncheon meat specials in Scientific American. I can check, though...” He flipped furiously through his magazine. “Nope. No cold cuts.” Mr. Kunkle appeared concerned. “It’s always something,” said Mr. Kunkle.
“Or half a dozen of another,” said Madge, Mrs. Kunkle, as she put down the magazine she had been reading and reached out to fiddle with the radio’s dial.
“Well, cold cuts or no cold cuts, this article says the Earth’s magnetic field is getting set to reverse itself any day now,” said Walt Kunkle.
“I hope this doesn’t affect our daughter,” said Mrs. Kunkle.
Betty called from the kitchen where she had returned the Big Iron Skillet to its proper place. “Stay,” said Betty to the Big Iron Skillet, and went back to the living room where Mr. Kunkle was smoothing out his magazine on the coffee table.
“It’s always something.” Mr. Kunkle was still thinking about the missing cold cuts from Dubrovsky’s. The Scientific American had never let him down before. “See,” he said. The Earth in the picture in the magazine looked like it had been wearing a knit wool cap on a very cold, dry day and, coming into its house—or wherever the Earth lived when it wasn’t underfoot, that is—had pulled off its knit wool cap and its hair stuck out every which way.
“Is that where we live?” asked Betty.
“Right here,” said Walt, pointing to a particularly unruly cowlick.
“Oh, Mom,” said Magnetic Betty, “it is such a bother with all these frying pans and toasters following me around. And only yesterday at soccer practice the goalposts bent way over to help me get a goal I didn’t deserve. They gave Amanda Thistle a bump on the head and she was grouchy all afternoon. I can’t wait for the Earth’s magnetic field to reverse itself no matter how many cold cuts Dubrovsky’s has in the Scientific American.”
“Sounds like we need professional help,” said Mr. Kunkle.
“Let’s call Dolby Jenks, World’s Number One Champion Detective,” said Betty. Dolby Jenks, World’s Number One Champion Detective, was the hero of one of Betty’s favorite radio programs.
“Dolby Jenks is a fictional personage,” said Mrs. Kunkle. “Let’s write a letter to Santa Claus.”
“I don’t know, dear,” said Mr. Kunkle. “The mail can be dreadfully slow around the holidays.”
“We’ll put on two stamps,” said Magnetic Betty.
“Extra postage, just the ticket. Why didn’t I think of that,” said Mrs. Kunkle, beaming down on Betty. “You are such a bright child.”
So it was that the Kunkles sent a letter off to Santa Claus. They gathered together by the radio to wait for his reply. “And now...” said the announcer, “...another pulse-pounding episode of Dolby Jenks, World’s Number One Champion Detective—The Adventure of the Shanghai Princess, Part Three.”
The Kunkle family was eating soda crackers and milk, for their omelette pan was nowhere to be found. The toaster purred at their feet. “The toaster may stay,” Mrs. Kunkle said, “But our omelette pan has disappeared. How sad.”
Ding, ding, ding announced the mantel clock.
“It is about time for Santa’s reply,” announced Walt Kunkle as he brushed cracker crumbs off his necktie. The Kunkles watched the fireplace. The chimney was hot and they had to get the mail out before it could catch fire.
“Zoop, zoop, zoop. Swish, swish, swish.” Like a falling feather, a single postcard descended the chimney. Swooping back and forth it neatly zigzagged around the glowing embers to land at Betty’s feet just as the radio boomed out the thundering finale of Dolby Jenks’ theme music.
“Right on time,” said Madge Kunkle. “Can’t beat Santa with a stick.” The toaster purred as a set of Revere Ware cooking pots flew in from their home in the cupboard under the kitchen sink to see what all the commotion was about.
“Now why would anyone want to...?” Walt Kunkle began to say. He was flabbergasted that his wife had voiced an intention to bludgeon the Christmas Elf.
“It’s an expression,” said Madge Kunkle, “...a figure of speech.”
Meanwhile Magnetic Betty was turning the letter from Santa Claus over and over hoping to find out what was inside.
“What’s inside?” her father asked. “What does Santa say... about our, uh... problem?”
“It doesn’t have an inside,” said Betty. “It is a postcard. Look.”
Walt Kunkle turned the postcard over and over in his hands. On the message side, next to a box provided by the manufacturer for people who felt they had something to say, the address said simply, Magnetic Betty. “You are right, Betty. It does not have any inside.”
“What does it say, dear?” said Mrs. Kunkle.
“’Dear Betty, having a lovely time, wish you were here. Try Dolby Jenks, Santa.’“
“He’s on vacation,” said Betty.
Walt Kunkle turned the postcard over. On the picture side, in shorts and an Aloha shirt, a jolly fat man with a flowing white beard held a large sea bass cradled in his arms. He was smiling directly into the camera.
“Good teeth,” said Madge Kunkle. “Well, he is an elf.”
“An elf on vacation,” said Walt Kunkle. Mr. Kunkle went back to reading his magazine.
“But whatever shall we do?” Betty asked. “I am getting stronger, I can feel it. Today frying pans and toasters, tomorrow—dishwashers... then automobiles and spaceships.” Betty started to cry.
“Walt, please pay attention. This is serious,” said Mrs. Kunkle for Betty was her only child and the apple of her eye. That, too, is a figure of speech, just in case you were wondering. “I know. Let’s make a wish on a wishbone. That’s a sure-fire fix,” said Betty’s Mom.
“Ahh, wishbone...” Mr. Kunkle looked down at his clavicle where a dab of cranberry relish still clung to his necktie.
“The turkey’s wishbone, dear. I have one all saved and set aside,” said Mrs. Kunkle. “A single omelette pan. Is that too much to ask of a turkey?” Mrs. Kunkle closed her eyes tightly as she made her wish.
“Wishbone wishes are powerful stuff,” said Mrs. Kunkle, “but this is for your own good, Betty.” The Kunkle turkey clavicle was very old and very dry and snapped before she was through. “Oh dear,” exclaimed Mrs. Kunkle.
“The turkey will understand, dear,” said Walt Kunkle. “Everything will be fine and dandy.”
“But a wish is a wish and all the turkeys in the world put together would be hard-pressed to make change for a quarter,” said Madge Kunkle. Mrs. Kunkle only wanted the best for her daughter.
For a while. Then, little by little, Betty’s magnetic attraction began to fade away. The floorboards of the Kunkle house sighed as their iron nails eased themselves back into their beams. Lip-smacking luncheon meats began materializing in the pictures of the Scientific American. Salamis and Bolognas bloomed where once people wearing khaki shorts grinned and waved their shovels as they unearthed ancient civilizations.
Things changed—both inside the Scientific American and out. A large ham orbited the moon. And in far Australia the Browns and the kangaroos settled in for some serious skittles and crossword puzzles where previously they had bounced all over the landscape, no small accomplishment when you stop to think that Australia is upside-down.
So Magnetic Betty was cured of her magnetism and things went back to normal and every Kunkle in Browntown was as happy as a clam.
No. Just the opposite!
Things were in a fine old state. Because the Earth began acting like it was flat, not round, and without Betty’s magnetism people found that things tended to fall over the edge and become lost forever. Previously sociable toasters, frying pans, even automobiles, went out for a breath of air and were never seen again. The Kunkles wore long faces and only played with their soda crackers.
“I just don’t see how we can live this way,” said Madge Kunkle. “Betty, didn’t you send away a boxtop and twenty-five cents for that magic decoder ring from the World’s Whatsis Whatever?”
“The World’s Champion Detective, Mom. That’s Dolby Jenks, and I would be listening to the Adventure of the Shanghai Princess if we didn’t have to have the radio on to the Browntown Symphony.”
“Now, Betty,” said Mr. Kunkle. “You know that it is...”
“I know, Dad. It’s good for me. I’ll have to use a neighbor’s phone to phone. It is too loud at home.”
“Why, Betty, you can go over to composer Kunkle’s house. He has a telephone and he never listens to music. Ear damage, I understand.” Betty’s mother nodded her head knowingly.
Two blocks down and one house over from the Kunkle family, Betty found Composer Kunkle sitting on his front porch with an air rifle on his knees. The famous composer appeared discouraged. “I am on a journey of personal discovery, Betty,” he explained.
“Shhhh. No, Betty, I have been too busy shooting crickets. The noise... their chirping,” he explained. “I asked myself a question, Betty—Where am I now...” said the composer and paused as if waiting for an answer.
“You are shooting crickets in your front yard,” said Betty helpfully.
“I am?” Piotr Ilyich Kunkle looked at the gun in his hands then turned to survey his lawn. The front yard glittered with tiny corpses. “My wife has left me for a quieter neighborhood. Because of the shooting, I believe. And I need somebody to tell me what to do next. Tragic, isn’t it? I only wanted to finish my masterpiece, Rhapsody for Pep Band and Clarinet.”
“You are a composer; you write music,” said Betty.
“A heavy-handed, hopeless composer, alas. My muse has deserted me. My wife? She always had sensitive ears. Besides, ever listen to my stuff?”
“Uh, no. Not if I can help it.”
“See? That’s what I mean about where am I.”
“You are on the porch with a BB gun.”
“Ahh, so I am. And without a wife or a muse to my name.” Composer Kunkle seemed to have brightened considerably just having someone to talk to. “How do you feel, Betty?” He had noticed the tearstains on Betty’s cheeks.
“Uh, Okay, I guess. Except all the Brownie Scouts are avoiding me. For being, ah... peculiar.”
“Ah, Yes—your magnetism thingy.” A cricket chirped in a neighbor’s yard. “It’s alright, guys,” said Piotr Ilyich Kunkle. “You can come out now.”
“Mister Kunkle, can I use your telephone? My Mom said to call Dolby Jenks.”
“The World’s Champion Detective,” exclaimed the famous composer. “You have his number?”
“Right here on my decoder ring,” said Betty as she picked up the phone. It was a long number. The telephone rang and rang, then a booming baritone came on the line.
“This is a recorded message. I am probably away from the office. Are you sure you wanted to call this number? I shall pause a moment as you consider your reply.” The Ride of the Valkyries came on the line.
“He’s got me on hold,” said Betty. “And it’s loud.”
“I can hear,” said the composer. “That’s the tune they play on TV when the helicopters attack.”
After three minutes the music faded and the mellifluous baritone came back on. “Hi, there... this is me and not a recording. I use the music to keep unwanted callers at bay. Dolby Jenks, World’s Champion Detective. How may I help you?”
Betty explained the problem. “And so you see, things fly through the air and stick to me when I walk by. None of my friends’mothers will let them play with me.”
“Have you sent in for your decoder ring? Without it, I’m afraid I can’t help you.”
“I certainly have. I’m Betty—Betty Kunkle?”
“Ah, the very one. And thank you for your twenty-five cents, Betty. Every box top counts.”
“And the answer is...” Betty held her pencil poised, expecting an encoded reply.
“A tricky business,” replied Dolby Jenks, World’s Champion Detective. “Not my field, I’m afraid, Betty. I would suggest that you find different friends with different mothers.”
“Browntown is very small, Mr. Jenks,” Betty said. “Everyone knows me.”
The Kunkles of Browntown did their best to adjust to life without omelettes. Mr. Kunkle went to the office where he folded papers into tiny airplanes and stared out of the window. He waited by the phone in case the frying pan had had a change of heart and called home.
Mrs. Kunkle transported her daughter to dance class, baton twirling, pottery and macramé classes, drama classes and clarinet lessons. Both before and after school. Her mother even made Betty a spangled suit, just to cheer her up, in the attic where Mrs. Kunkle had her sewing room. “Baton twirling and the clarinet are sure-fire, can’t miss. You will be there for every football game. And if your knees get cold in your spangled suit, you can wrap up in a blanket when you play your clarinet with the Pep Band.”
Now, the Kunkle Elementary Pep Band was conducted by none other than Piotr Ilyich Kunkle, the famous composer, who as it happened was just about to ring the doorbell—the very same doorbell rung previously by Amanda Thistle—when Betty opened the door on a hunch.
“You had a hunch, then Betty?” said Piotr Ilyich Kunkle, the famous composer.
“I had a hunch that our frying pan might have come back home,” said Betty.
“Even better than that, Betty,” said composer Kunkle. “I have just now finished my Magnetic Rhapsody for Pep Band and Clarinet and you have the solo part. I thought you would be pleased.”
“But I cannot play the clarinet with my mouth full of soda crackers,” said Betty. “If only I had an omelette.”
“Well, omelettes are brain food—this is a well-known scientific fact,” said composer Kunkle. “But we will have to make do with soda crackers. There’s no problem that can’t be fixed with a good solution. Let’s think about it.”
“OK,” said Betty. And they sat down together on the steps of the Kunkle house.
“Hmm...” said Piotr Ilyich Kunkle, the famous composer.
“Ahh...” said Betty.
“I’ve got it!” said Piotr Ilyich Kunkle, the famous composer.
“Ooo...” said Betty.
“No, I don’t.” said Piotr Ilyich Kunkle, the famous composer.
“Aww...” said Betty.
“We are thinking, right?” asked Piotr Ilyich Kunkle, his pencil poised to write things down.
“Sounds like it,” said Betty as she reached for another soda cracker.
Honeybunny, the Kunkle family dog, circled at their feet. Honeybunny woofed. “I think she likes you, Mr. Kunkle,” said Betty.
“My ex-wife liked me, too,” said the composer-turned-writer. “Now look.” Piotr Ilyich Kunkle pointed to himself; he was decidedly unkempt. He was hunched over the yellow legal pad he always carried in case of an idea. “Ouch!” He felt the muscles of his back tighten. “The latissimus dorsi,” he said.
“How much do you have so far?”
Composer Kunkle held up the pad so that Betty could see. The paper was blank. “Nothing. Not a word. And if I did really, really did have an idea it would be awful, I just know it. Something to leave in a railroad station never to go back to again.”
“Wow, Composer Kunkle. What does it feel like to have your yellow legal pad have nothing to say to you?” Betty was thinking about Amanda Thistle, her best friend even though she was not named Kunkle, and whose parents had forbidden her to have anything to do with Betty. “It might be catching,” they said.
“Humbling, Betty. Humbling albeit strangely liberating while at the same time strangely contrapuntal.”
“You need a focus, Composer Kunkle,” said Betty.
“Just the thing,” said the famous composer, springing to his feet. “The very thing. Ouch!”
“Latissimus dorsi,” said Betty.
“Eureka...” said Piotr Ilyich Kunkle. “I do have it. We will broadcast the Magnetic Rhapsody and every radio in Browntown will be tuned in.” The famous composer had come up with a solution and just in the nick of time. Because in each and every corner of the flat, square and horizontal Earth people were understandably glum. “The music will cheer them up,” said the composer. “And the omelette pans will be sure to hear you play your clarinet and they will come back home. You will be the pan-piper of Browntown, Home of the Ocelots. Mind if I have another soda cracker?”
“Help yourself,” said Betty. “I’ve got a clarinet to play.”
And so, the frying pans came back. Piotr Ilyich Kunkle’s Magnetic Rhapsody was played on the radio and all the residents of Browntown had been alerted to turn their radios up loud so the pots and pans would be sure to hear and wonder what all the commotion was about. The omelette pans returned to their kitchens, the omelettes returned to the omelette pans, dishwashers hummed, washing machines gurgled and splashed, and no major appliances ran away from home. In far Australia the kangaroos contentedly played Scrabble and ate crème-filled pies with the Browns.
And in American Samoa (you will have to check an Atlas on this one), where the North Pole had relocated after the magnetic reversal predicted in the pages of the Scientific American, Santa Claus chuckled in his aloha shirt. For from that day forward, all the children of the world got letters from Santa instead of sending their letters to him. Santa wrote and told you what you were going to get. And when. And that was that. After thousands of years making hit-your-brakes turns at the corners of the world, Santa had decided it was time to slow down.
And what about Dolby Jenks, World’s Number One Champion Detective, the hero of Betty’s favorite radio program?
“This is Browntown Radio,” the announcer said, “...All Kunkle All the Time. We regret that Dolby Jenks and the Adventure of the Shanghai Princess, Part Sixteen will not be heard today in order that we may bring you a rebroadcast of Blow Your Nose in a Garden Hose by the renowned composer Piotr Ilyich Kunkle. But wait. This note has just been handed to me.” There was a rustle of paper to show that the announcer had an authentic note. “There are some Thistles in Browntown. The Thistles are second cousins, twice removed.”
“That’s Amanda,” said Betty. “Mom, what is a removed cousin?”
“That is a figure of speech, dear. The Thistles are cousins of the Browns who went to Australia. Except the Thistles stayed home.”
“Well,” said Mr. Kunkle. “Dolby Jenks is still a fictional personage, removed or not. Sorry about that. Let us all enjoy our omelettes.”
copyright 2009, 2015 Rob Hunter
Magnetic Betty was first published online in Nautilus Engine February 2009, Ron Warren fiction editor. Betty is available as a .lit file for Microsoft Reader (free) or hardcover book ($17.50) with 11 original illustrations by Maine artist Lee Suta.