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The Bicycle

by Martin Green


Cartoonish rendering of a racing bicycle

It started with our Division Chief Dennis Rathbone bursting out of his office, even more red-faced than usual, and yelling, ”Those idiots. They’ve screwed me.” I knew that this was the day that Rathbone had ordered the Division to have a going-away party for Alistair Fairweather, our retiring Executive Director, so I assumed his explosion had something to do with that. I was right. Fairweather, a tall, bony man of 65 with the aristocratic look and manner of an Executive Director, was also an avid environmentalist and fitness freak who rode a bicycle everywhere. As a parting gift, Rathbone had ordered all Division employees to contribute toward the purchase of a new specially equipped bicycle, which was supposed to be delivered that day.  

Now it seemed that something had delayed delivery and the bicycle wouldn’t arrive. It was no secret that Rathbone was going all out for this occasion because he badly wanted to become the next Executive Director himself.  Now his great plans, or at least his great gift,  had apparently been spoiled. “Damnit,” he repeated. “They’ve screwed me.”

But all was not lost. Henry Watson, Rathbone’s assistant, came trotting out after him. “I have an idea,” he said. “Let’s have someone draw a big picture of a bicycle. We can put it on an easel, cover it up, then unveil it as a surprise.”

Rathbone stopped ranting and considered. “That’s not a bad idea,” he said. He looked around. “Anyone here a decent artist?”

There was no response. “Come on,” he said. “Someone must be able to draw a  bicycle. How about you, Babcock?”

Henry Babcock was one of the Division’s section chiefs. He knew that Rathbone’s question was really an order “All right,” he said. “I can try.”  

“Do better than that,” said Rathbone. “I have a magazine with a picture of the bicycle so you can copy it. And get started right away. We don’t have much time.”

We all returned to our appointed tasks while Babcock got a big sheet of drawing paper. About an hour later we heard him moaning and groaning. I can’t do this,” he said. He threw down the pen he was using. We got up and looked. His picture was a mess. “Rathbone’s going to kill me,” Babcock said.

“I’ll do it.” It was Claire Simmons, one of our analysts. She was an attractive girl, I should say woman, who was also smart, a graduate of UC Berkeley. The rumor was that Rathbone had hit on her, as he had with most of the women on his staff. It was said she’d threatened him with a charge of sexual harassment if he didn’t behave himself. “I had some art classes in college.”

“Thanks, Claire,” said Babcock.  “You’ve saved my life.”

The party started at noon. The long table in our conference room was covered with dishes from a catering service Rathbone had hired, with money contributed by Division employees. In one corner was the picture, on an easel and covered with a cloth. The room was crowded.  Rathbone had invited all the other Division chiefs. Retiring Executive Director Fairweather stood close to the easel. As I’ve said, he looked aristocratic; he was also said to be vain and overbearing.  His wife, also thin and boney and likewise said to be vain and overbearing, stood next to him.  Rathbone, heavy and red-faced, was next to them. Assistant Chief Watson stood in the background.

Rathbone began his speech, a flowery oration about what a great leader Fairweather had been. He went on and on and I could see that most of the audience, including myself, had stopped listening about halfway through. Then came the big moment. He tore the cloth off the easel and the picture was unveiled. There was a collective gasp. I could well believe Claire Simmons had taken some art classes; the picture was excellent. She’d drawn a fine-looking bicycle. She’d also drawn riding the bicycle an unmistakable caricature of Fairweather, in a short-sleeved shirt and shorts, his bony elbows and knees protruding, gray hair flying out, whiskers on his chin, a wild-looking old geezer.

Mrs. Fairweather was the first to speak. “How dare you?” she said, looking directly at Rathbone. “How dare you?” She grabbed her husband by the elbow and marched him out of the room.

Rathbone could only sputter, then he said, “Babcock, where are you? You’re fired.”

Claire Simmons said, “Don’t blame Babcock. I was the one who drew the picture.”

Rathbone sputtered some more but said nothing. My guess was that Claire’s threat of a sexual harassment charge kept him silent. Meanwhile, people, looking at the picture, began to laugh. It was pretty funny. Henry Watson stepped in. “There’s lots of good food on the table,” he said. “Paid for by everyone. Why don’t we all have lunch?” And so we did.

In the aftermath of what I’d always think of as the big bicycle fiasco Rathbone wasn’t dismissed but was given a demotion to the Department’s office in Stockton. Henry Watson took his place. It occurred to me that the picture might have been a scheme between Watson and Claire Simmons, but soon after she took a job in another Division.   

Babcock retired in a year. The Division was a much better place to work in under Watson so I stayed on and was duly promoted. A friend of the Governor was brought in to be Executive Director. The big bicycle fiasco became an office legend.

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