Tibor looked out the corner window of his apartment and admired his view of Budapest. It was a rich man’s view seen from a peasant’s apartment by virtue of the inefficiency of a system that would eventually strip it from him. He looked straight down the Danube from near the foot of the Erzsebet Bridge in Buda over the brawny Chain Bridge, across the façade of the neo-gothic spired Parliament building, and to the Margit Bridge where the river split around the Margit Island Park. The buildings and bridges were all lit up in anticipation of the city beginning its day, and soaked from a rain the preceding night. Even on this cruddy day, in which cold rain spat from low gray clouds, it was less depressing outside than inside Tibor’s cramped apartment with its brown water-stained ceilings and musty atmosphere. It was a symbolic act of personal defiance to turn his back on the apartment.
“You ready?” Tibor’s co-worker, Antal, said.
Antal lived in the same building and had let himself in with a spare key. His hulking body filled the doorframe.
“I suppose.” Tibor said with a sigh.
Tibor was not eager to give up the grandiosity of his view and the daydreams it inspired for his monotonous job at a Csepel Island bicycle factory.
“You’re a dreamer. I don’t know if that is a gift or a curse.” Said Antal.
“Every man needs a refuge.” Tibor replied.
“Yeah, booze and loose women do quite nicely for me.”
“That’s one approach, I suppose.”
“Don’t do it. Both will make you dumb, and you’re a smart fellow. You’ll be running that factory some day.”
“I doubt that. They will always want someone with a more malleable sense of reason.” Tibor responded.
Antal simultaneously tilted and nodded his head while pursing his lower lip and raising his brow so as to communicate: “Probably so.”
The apartment building’s location was not particularly convenient to work. It required a combination of tram and bus rides capped by a walk of a couple blocks. Tibor and Antal rode into work together, as usual, mostly in silence. Antal spent most of his attention admiring the office girls while Tibor engaged in his usual reveries. They passed many storefronts, empty and occupied, but few having opened yet. Tibor took a mild sort of comfort in the old stout buildings, which were there before his time and would remain after he was gone. They’d survived wars and punishing neglect.
When they got to the factory, Tibor and Antal were told that all foremen would need to convene in the Director’s office at 10:00am. Rumors started to circulate about the purpose of this meeting. The idle speculation spilled into a kind of competition among the men to see who could come up with most absurd explanation, which, in the realm of Second World manufacturing, was probably true.
“They are moving the factory to Siberia to make swimwear.” Tibor offered.
“Effective immediately, we will begin putting spare tires on all the bikes.” An assembler with a curled mustache retorted.
“We will be retooling the line to make unicycles for circus elephants.” Said Antal.
“The Party Chief’s wife would like a bicycle built for two that fits inside a briefcase.” Another offered.
This quieted the group, and they broke up and went back to work. The conversation had edged too close to blasphemy. Occasionally men forgot that wherever ten people gathered there was sure to be a stoolie.
At the appointed hour, all the foremen convened around a well-worn table in a cramped little conference room. The Director looked around at the men assembled before him. It was intended as a stern look, but it lacked the necessary gravitas. The Director was beneficiary of nepotism. His job was coveted, but it was also a good place to put someone who wasn’t competent, but whose employ secured assurances of log-rolling. Ironically, what kept him from being a competent director was a dislike of being despised. He generally operated by staying out of the way, and this made everyone more happy.
Finally, he spoke, “The Minister of Tourism has decided there is pent up demand for tourism services, and he wants to set up rental stations for recreational bicycles at certain places around Balaton and the Dunapart. Therefore, he’s asking us to fill our largest order ever, and to do it within the next month. I’m asking you all to step it up, to dig deep, and to go the extra-mile.”
Tibor raised his hand politely after the parade of motivational slogans was complete.
When the Director realized that Tibor would not accept being ignored, he responded, “Yes, Tibor.”
“If I might be so bold, Mr. Director, if this is about tourism, what’s the rush? A one month deadline means the bicycles will be ready just in time for the coldest days of winter.” Tibor pointed out.
“The Minister is excited about this now, and it wouldn’t bode well for us to neglect that fact. Furthermore, he wants to make sure that everything is set and in place for the early tourist season so that any kinks can be worked out.”
There was no use in pointing out the absurdity of taking four months to “work out the kinks” in a plan that was probably doomed to fail anyway. This would have just forced the Director to pretend to be stern, and no one wanted to see that demoralizing spectacle.
“So how many of these things do we need to make in a month?” Norbert Szabo asked.
“Well, they ordered the tires from our comrades in Vietnam and the seats from the Poles. We are supposed to get the tires this afternoon and the seats by tomorrow morning. Our directive is to build until we run out of parts.” The Director said, and he handed the invoices over to Tibor, who had the best sense for numbers.
Rubber tires and pressed plastic seats were the only parts that weren’t fabricated domestically. The frames, forks, handlebars, cranks, pedals, and sprockets were all made in-house, and chains and wheels were made by other Hungarian plants.
It immediately struck Tibor that, even putting the foremen on the lines and with everybody working two consecutive shifts for seven days a week, they could not turn out that many units. The second thing Tibor noticed was that there were not two tires for every seat. There were more seats than tire pairs. This didn’t present a huge problem. They would build until they ran out of tires or were hung for their failure – whichever came first. There was always the possibility that the manifest was wrong or the orders wouldn’t be fully filled. More likely, the deliveries would be late but complete.
“And what happens if we can’t fill this order?” Antal asked.
“Well, the Minister personally intends to attend a delivery ceremony, and he might take failure as a slap in the face. I’d say a failure would, at a minimum, result in a new set of foremen.” The Director replied, trying in vain not to feel flaccid in his threat.
The meeting broke up and Tibor went to work, like the other foremen, trying to lay the groundwork for the daunting task ahead. The foremen got their men working, and then went to work reviewing inventory and putting in orders – for scrap metal where necessary.
Darkness had long since fallen over the city when Tibor and Antal left the plant. The ride home was interminable. There was something depressing about going home so late, after the streets had nearly cleared. Antal talked Tibor into stopping into a pub down the street from their building. It must have been a beautiful place in its prime. The bar was ornately carved hardwood and behind it was stained glass shelving for the liquor, but the bar surfaces were chipped, dented and worn and the top-shelf bottles were dusty.
“So do you think they’ll let us stay at the bicycle factory as fabricators, or will they send us to a hog farm to shovel crap?” Antal asked with his usual dry humor.
“Where’s your faith.” Tibor replied.
“Come on, there’s no way we make this order.”
“Of course not – not by a mile.”
“Bastard! You’re supposed to peddle false hope.”
“Sorry, my mistake… Oh, I think we will be done a week early.” Tibor said shifting to a tone of false enthusiasm.
“Too late, Jackass.” Antal said, ever the playful drunk.
In the morning, Tibor was back in his kitchen looking out over the city – this time experiencing a splendid cloudless morning. Antal was hung-over, but was still forced to be the one to get the odd couple moving. Tibor had only drunk enough to fall into a sound sleep, but awoke feeling fantastic.
As they rode to work, Tibor spoke, “How do you feel about taking a risk?”
“Oh, hell, I feel some Mechanical Engineer voodoo in the works.”
Tibor just smiled. He pulled a folded up dog-eared piece of paper from his pocket, and handed it to Antal.
“You were right; you’ll never run that place. The question is whether you’ll get us executed or just fired… or maybe Stakhanovite medals.”
When they got to the factory, Antal, who had more sway with people, began selling Tibor’s plan. He just needed to get the other foremen on board. The fabricators would do what they were told because they had nothing to lose. It would have been impossible to convince the foremen, but they were between a rock and a hard place. The only question was whether they’d be worse off failing or succeeding by way of a technicality.
While Antal was being persuasive, Tibor was in the corner of the factory floor laying out pieces of tubing to get a feel for whether the plans, sketched out crudely, would work in a three-dimensional world with gravity. While the frame would have to be beefier, his design would involve less bending and many fewer welds. Tibor modified his design as he laid it out.
When the deadline rolled around, they had almost finished. Fortunately, the Minister had a more pressing event to attend at the time, and so he came four days later. By the time the Minister arrived, all of the work, including polishing the finished products, was done. The Minister entered with a small entourage. All of the workers and foremen looked instinctively at the political officer rather than at the Minister. The political officer’s gaunt face became livid and reddened upon seeing not row upon row of bicycles, but, instead, rows of buggies- each with eight wheels, though paired to make it appear like a four-wheeled buggy. The seats were configured with a steersman up front, and, immediately behind him were two seats for peddlers side-by-side. Partially offset to the outside of the two center peddlers were another two that were facing backwards and moved to the front of the vehicle enough that they could share a common crank shaft for peddling with the center peddlers. The conveyances were sturdy and completely functional, but they looked quite odd.
The political officer spoke first, “Who is responsible for this?”
Tibor uneasily stepped forward for his shellacking. Antal stepped forward to join him.
The political officer opened his mouth and took in a deep breath in preparation for shouting a tirade, but, before he could speak, he was interrupted.
“Brilliant. Absolutely brilliant. I had not even considered such a possibility, but you’ve displayed a stroke of genius. In this way, families and friends will be able to travel together and maintain a conversation.” The Minister said.
The Political Officer could say nothing, but rather let his air out in a deflating hiss.