No Firm Ground


Charles Bins

There was something William Waverly had forgotten but didn’t want to remember. He had been a successful architect for an engineering firm in Georgia and had retreated to California after the accident.

Had he locked the door to his house? The thought nagged him as he drove across The Golden Gate on this windy Wednesday. The cables seemed to jangle like Slinkys. Was it the just wind? He fought the feeling. The roadway felt wavy, but vehicles were still driving straight. No one was honking. He wondered about the quality of the stranded steel cables.

On the other side, he spotted Alcatraz chiseled beneath muddy clouds. Aboard a tall ship, sailors in black-and-white who could be prisoners waved their arms as they adjusted the sails. He cracked his window near the wharf, and the smell of fish penetrated his nostrils. Dozens of seals barked. On the sidewalk, a woman in a red scarf worked to restrain her barking dalmatian.

Waverly wheeled right, remembering the path to the office. Pastel homes zipped by, uphill and down, until his stomach threatened. He parked a block away, set the brake and stepped carefully to avoid hazards pushing up the sidewalk.

After a long wait, Dr. Schwartz invited him in. The hushed room sunk in dim light, two deep chairs opposite one another, a pool of blue rug between them. The clock chimed 10 times before the doc asked. Waverly admitted he felt shaky, and the thought that he had forgotten something important gripped him.

“It wasn’t your fault, Willy.”

I’m not sure, so how can you be?

“Your firm made you a scapegoat. They turned you out. But the matter was investigated for two years. The court found the liability belonged to the construction team. You were exonerated.”

That building should not have collapsed. Fifty-four people died.

“Yes, it was a tragedy. But you need to understand that if the construction team used substandard concrete, that was their fault, not yours.”

The next Wednesday, Mr. Waverly had a breakthrough: He remembered a memo he had drafted advising the construction manager that the specification for the concrete foundation should be improved to M60 for added safety.

“And you communicated it. So where’s the problem?”

M50 was the correct design mix per industry standards, but I wanted it higher.

“So that’s why your firm singled you out?”

Yes, they buried the memo after the accident. I tried to find it in my files the next day, but it was gone. The construction manager said he never received it — and didn’t know what I was talking about. In fact, all the people I copied right up to the VP of operations, insisted they never saw it.

“You’re sure you sent it then?”

Don’t you see? It was a coverup. They gaslighted me — then pushed me out for ‘performance issues.’ They destroyed my reputation, and my confidence.

Dr. Schwartz said Willy should feel a burdened lifted since he now knew the truth.

He felt relief as he returned to his Volvo and headed back to Sonoma. Yet halfway over the Bridge, the cables started bouncing vigorously, and now the bridge swayed with a slight twisting motion. Cars started to drift lanes and skid. A double-decker bus barreled toward him. He swerved to avoid it. His heart surged, but he kept his hands on the wheel.

Mr. Waverly reached the other side unscathed. Yet on the long ride home, he wondered again: Had he recalled it correctly, or was there something else important he should remember?