Swiss Army Man

Submitted into Contest #124 in response to: Start your story with someone trying to read a map.... view prompt



Billy held the map in both hands. A trail of dots led his eye from one hand-drawn clue to the next. The dots and clues zig-zagged across the map from left to right and back until they stopped at the last clue.

On the main floor above him, his mother and grandmother argued in muffled tones. It was always about something. Today, they argued about the same “something” that drove Billy to this basement after the funeral two years ago.

Back then, he had found his grandpa at the workbench. The old man motioned him from the darkness of the basement and into the yellow glow of a single light bulb over the bench.

In thirty minutes, Billy had learned that fathers die, mothers cry, and boys become men too soon.

When asked how to become a man, his grandpa promised, “I’ll make you a map.”

The doorbell rang on the floor above him. The argument stopped.

Another casserole?

Billy didn’t feel hungry even though he hadn’t eaten for two days. His mother called it grief and another step on one’s journey through life.

Could the dots on his grandpa’s map avoid the grief?

The first series of dots led to a small drawing of a red badge with a white cross inside it.

Billy knew exactly where the clue would lead.

The hutch above the workbench had the thirty slots and drawers, ten across and three down—each for a different tool.

His grandpa had told him the tools he used the most were on the bottom row and easy to reach. The lesser-used tools were higher on the hutch and harder to reach.

He opened the middle drawer on the bottom row. He found the red knife with its small badge and white cross on the handle—the Swiss Army logo.

Billy had held the knife before. On each visit, he served as a messenger. His job was to carry tools between his grandpa, the hutch and household problems. But the knife was more than a solution to a loose screw or stubborn knot on a shoestring.

It spoke to ownership.

Billy found his grandpa's name etched on the font of the handle, WILLIAM. He turned the knife over and ran his fingers across the engraved letters of his father’s name, WILL. But the engraving ran more than four letters. He discovered his grandpa had added five new letters, BILLY.

The knife was his.

The living room door closed on the floor above him and his mother’s footsteps marched to his father’s childhood bedroom. Grandma Pearl’s footsteps retreated to a favorite chair. The old recliner stood like a sentinel between the basement and bedroom doors.

Billy once tried to sneak around Pearl resting in that chair. It was after his grandpa had promised the map. He wanted to go to bed and dream about the map. But grandma stopped him. She wanted to be his “checksum” like she was for Will when he was Billy’s age.

When asked the meaning of “checksum,” Pearl told Billy it was a mathematical process to fix potential mistakes. But they would use it differently. After every visit with his grandpa, she wanted Billy to “check” with her and “sum” up their conversations. 

Billy did.

Grandpa’s trail of dots led Billy to the next clue on his map. He found the letter and number B5 in bold black ink.

Again, he knew where to look.

Billy counted two rows down on the hutch and five spots over. He rested the drawer on the top of the workbench, then reached inside. He found a green swatch of paper about the size of a postage stamp with saw-toothed edges. Grandpa had used a magic marker to change the color of the swatch to green.

He whispered, “Bingo.”

Grandpa had used the word “Bingo,” after they solved an impossible household problem with an unlikely solution—like the time they fixed a leaky pipe with nothing but Play-Doh.

But Grandma Pearl said otherwise. During their checksum talk, she said folks yelled Bingo to end a game of chance. Grandpa had stolen the word from their church basement. But it was still okay to use and hoped there were no more impossible problems under her roof.

Billy knew where the swatch fit. He placed the green paper cutout into the postage-sized hole in the map. The jagged edges lined up.

With two solved clues, Billy followed the dots to the next challenge. He found a hand-drawn electrical outlet shaded in yellow.

The road to manhood was pretty easy. He knew about the outlet.

Billy turned on the radio near the edge of the workbench and listened to the lilting voice of a newscaster on a boring day. Then he unplugged the radio and moved it to the center of the bench. He cleared a path to a cubby hole in the hutch and found the electrical outlet with its yellow face plate. He plugged in the radio, toggled the on-off switch and heard nothing. The electrical outlet was a fake with no live wires connected to it.

His grandpa had installed the box as a hiding spot. He told Billy that every payday, he would add a twenty-dollar bill to a roll of money hidden inside. And that he couldn’t open the box without his permission.

During their checksum talk, Pearl told him that the fake electrical outlet was not the only secret hiding spot down there.

In the basement, Billy tried to do the math—twenty dollars times twenty paydays. Or was it twenty dollars times a hundred paydays? He didn’t know. And how would he use the money?

He tried to rub the sweat from his hands but the effort only spread the dirt and grime left from the mishap that occurred on long drive yesterday. It was the dirt and grime that helped him figure out how he would use the money.

Billy opened his Swiss Army knife to the flathead screwdriver and guided it into the screw on the cover of the electrical outlet.

But the screwdriver didn’t fit. Now, that screwdriver had fit every other electrical outlet in that house that wasn’t painted yellow. Why not this one?

He looked closer with a flashlight. What type of screw is that?

Over the months, his grandpa had taught him the difference between a flat head and Phillips head. But this screw was neither. It was star-shaped and too small for any tool on that bench.

Perhaps his map could help? 

Billy held the flashlight over the map and pointed it towards the next clue. It was a drawing of a lock, the kind you found on a desk drawer. 

He tried to pull out the desk drawer beneath the workbench. It wouldn’t budge. He moved the flashlight back over the green swatch of paper. He held the flashlight behind the swatch and then whispered, “Bingo.”

The dark green marker had covered the real clue, the letter and number written beneath it, A9.

Billy climbed and knelt on the top of the workbench and reached into drawer A9. He found a small screwdriver with a star-shaped head. He also noticed the face of drawer A10 next to it was painted pink. It stood out like the flamingos in Grandma Pearl's front yard.

He twisted the screw loose on the outlet and placed the screwdriver in his shirt pocket. He pulled the yellow cover away. There was no money roll. 

Instead, he found a stubby carpenter’s pencil and a key.

Billy felt like a flat tire on a long drive—a feeling he just had the day before.

On the main floor above him, a door squeaked open. Keys rattled. Footsteps led to the front door and ten-seconds later, an engine roared to life. 

Billy hoped his mom was going to see a mechanic. On the trip here, the car lunged to the left after a loud pop. He coached her to a stop on the side of the highway and waited for her hands to stop shaking. He told her it was going to be okay because the same thing happened to grandpa and him. They had a flat tire on their road trip to Arlington last month.

For the next thirty minutes, Billy’s mother watched her ten-year old son change a flat tire. He explained each step out loud, the same way grandpa had explained them to him on the side of the road in Virginia. 

He sensed his mother’s pride as they drove away but knew replacing one bald tire with another was no bingo.

The incident convinced him that his mother needed new tires and the money in the electrical box should cover their cost.

But there was no money in the fake electrical outlet.

Billy pulled out every drawer on the hutch but they were all empty. 


Not only was the money gone but so were grandpa’s tools.

Maybe the map would explain the missing tools, but it didn’t. The trail on the map ended with a carpenter’s pencil and a rusted key.

What was grandpa thinking when he drew the map?

Billy looked closer at the pencil. He had seen it before on the trip to Arlington. It was dull and needed sharpening. The problem with this kind of pencil is that it wasn’t like a school pencil. Its cross section was shaped like a rectangle. It was ill-fitting in his small hands and wouldn’t fit in the round hole of a classroom sharpener.

What about the key? It seemed tarnished and rusty as if never used. 

At one of their checksum discussions, Billy told Grandma Pearl that grandpa was going to make him a map on how to become a man. She smiled and called it a fool’s errand. When asked what that meant, Pearl told him that such a map was like a key in search of a lock in the middle of a lock factory.

Billy held the key in search of a lock. But Pearl was wrong.

He moved the stool back to gain access to the desk drawer beneath the workbench.

It was the right-sized key but only the tip would fit. Billy inspected the lock with the flashlight. He found the broken half of another key lodged inside the chamber.

A fool’s errand? 

Then he remembered the time he caught a splinter while carrying wood for fence repairs. Grandpa said there was only one tool in that whole basement that could fix a splinter.

Billy picked up the Swiss Army knife and pulled out the tweezers. He shined the flashlight on the lock and gripped the edges of the broken key. With a gentle tug, the lock chamber was free like that splinter from the palm of his hand.

He inserted the rusty key into the lock but it wouldn’t turn. He jiggled it, pushed it, and twisted it. But it still didn’t turn.

He removed the key and tried to blow the rust off of it. It didn’t work. He picked up the pencil and tried to erase the rust away. It didn’t work. And then he remembered how his grandpa used the carpenter’s pencil on their visit to Arlington. 

Grandpa had placed a sheet of paper on the front of the gravestone of Billy’s father. Then he took out the stubby pencil and rubbed it back and forth across the paper. 

Billy watched as the pencil left a dark impression on some spots and a lighter impression others. His grandpa explained how the graphite in the pencil reacted to friction on the paper—the smoother the background, the darker the graphite. Since there was less friction when the graphite passed over the recess of the engraved letters, they appeared lighter. In less than two minutes, Billy had a sketched replica of his father’s gravestone. 

But he had no place to put it.

Because after the funeral two-years ago, his mother refused all memories of his father in their house. Too much pain. Grandpa folded the piece of paper and placed it in his pocket.

On Grandma Pearl’s lap, she told Billy that the relief sketch was her idea and she knew about his mother’s wishes. When he asked her if it was a “fool's errand,” she said no and that she would put it in a hiding spot in the basement that only the two of them could find.

The memory of the friction effects of graphite on paper helped Billy understand what to do with the pencil. He rubbed the nail file on his Swiss Army knife back and forth across the pencil until the tip until the tip was narrow and sharp.

Then he rubbed the tip of the sharpened pencil across the rusted key. With some encouragement, the graphite on the key loosened the lock.

Billy slid the drawer open and blinked twice on purpose. Inside the drawer, he found all the tools that were missing from the drawers above the workbench.

Grandpa would not allow this. Every tool had a place on the bench and it was not in the drawer.

There was no such thing as a misplaced tool like there was no such thing as misplaced money?

He placed the big tools on top of the workbench and then sifted through the small stuff reaching as far as he could into the back of the drawer. 

The roll of money wasn’t there. 

Since the lock was the last clue on his map, his journey was over.

Billy decided to ask grandma about the tools but not until after he returned them to the hutch. It was the least he could do for the man who guided him through so many household problems and their solutions.

He picked up the old filter wrench and placed it into drawer B2. This was the wrench they used twice to change the oil on his grandpa’s old Chevy.

He placed the little oil can into the cubby hole at C7. Together, they had used the oil to remove the squeak from the hinges on the screen door to the backyard. 

He placed the tape measure into the drawer at C4. This was the same tape measure used to mark Billy’s growth on the side of the basement door.

Each tool had a memory. His favorite memories were for the tools they used the most. They were easy to reach. The smaller memories were harder to reach but just as important.

Billy thought about his grandpa’s paper map. Did he really need it?

Wasn’t each little dot on the map really tracing his footsteps from that workbench to the next household problem?

Did the steps to become a man stop at leaky pipes, splinters, oil changes and squeaky screen doors? Does a tape measure really measure the growth of a man?

Billy had it all figured out. He crossed his arms over his chest as if satisfied with a job well done. Then he felt the star-shaped screwdriver in his shirt pocket. It belonged in A9, the drawer next to A10 and its out-of-place pink drawer.

He climbed back onto the top of the workbench and replaced the star-shape screwdriver into A9.

Then he opened the drawer at A10.

Billy pulled out a cloth pouch slightly smaller than the drawer. It was cinched at the top with a thick piece of string. He recognized the knot immediately.

This was not his first impossible knot. Six months ago, Grandma Pearl brought two pink flamingos home from Woolworths and hid them in a pillowcase in the basement.

Grandpa found them.

Like a hundred times before, his grandpa yelled “Billy” and told him to bring the Swiss Army knife. Billy found him in one of the darkest recesses of the basement. He held up the offending pillowcase and pointed to the impossible knot. He told Billy there was only one way through such a knot. 

The front door opened on the floor above him. He traced his mother’s footsteps from the front door to the reclining chair. The muted tones told Billy his mother and grandma put away “something.” He could tell by the sobs that his grandpa was right—fathers die, mothers cry and little boys become men too soon.

But what about that pouch and its impossible knot?

Billy inspected the pouch and its knot. There was only one way. He opened the blade on his Swiss Army knife and cut the string. 

Inside the pouch, he found a green magic marker, scissors with saw-toothed edges, a money roll, the sketched replica of his father’s gravestone, and a receipt for engraving performed a day after his grandpa died.

The instructions on the receipt were to engrave the word BILLY on a little red Swiss Army knife.


December 17, 2021 21:17

You must sign up or log in to submit a comment.