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Grey Sparrow Journal and Press, as of January 31, 2018 will move to

Issue 30, July 31, 2017
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A Temblor of a Different Magnitude 


by Julie Mark Cohen

"Did you see that?" Stephen sputtered in-between slurps of his latte.


"See what?" Albert said, peering over his reading glasses. With his smooth-skinned hand that belied his eighty some-odd years, he set aside the document he was reading and picked up the teapot to refill his cup with green chai tea.


"Down the street. That Rottweiler." Stephen used the back of his hand to wipe the foam off of his mouth and pointed out the window. "He was strutting like an alpha male, proudly mouthing something, maybe a small toy. Then, all of a sudden, dropped to the ground and crawled with such power and speed that his handler had to let go of the leash."


"Something must've spooked him. Maybe a car, Can't imagine what else," Albert said. "So, young man, you have a masters degree in structural engineering and a minor in the history of ethics in the construction industry. Excellent combination."


"I wanted to learn as much as I could, so I'd be less prone to making mistakes in practice."


"I saw that you just began working at Sentler's firm. He's a good man. You'll learn a lot more from him. But, why did you want to meet me?"


"I've heard that you've been doing peer review work, finding and correcting all sorts of errors and omissions, and I wanted to ask if you'd be so kind as to tell me what's entailed in your work." Stephen continued, grinning. "I've heard that you're quite the storyteller."


"Oh, so you want me to tell you that I'm a structural engineering peer reviewer of unparalleled international repute and unflappable integrity?"


"I already know this."


"You asked for references to learn about my reputation, did you?" Albert chuckled.


Embarrassed, Stephen hung his head.


"Okay. I'll tell you about my last project first. It happens to be the apartment complex across the street. "


"The one with that new chain place, Eugene's Beans? I was going to ask you why you suggested we meet here. It still looks like photos I've seen of 1950s Beatnik cafés."


Albert signaled to a waitress. "That's its charm, but it's run by a local guy and Suzie knows exactly what I want without my asking. See, she's bringing you something special: a low-fat, low-sugar, cookie with grains, nuts, berries, cinnamon, and other spices. Try it."


Stephen nibbled on the cookie, gazed quizzically at the remaining piece, and muttered, "A healthy cookie? But it tastes so real."


"So, young man. Have you heard of Bernard Legrand?"


Stephen, chewing on another bite of the cookie, shook his head no.


"Well, have you heard of the diminutive man with cordovan-dyed hair who barreled into the Los Angeles real estate scene three years ago?"


"Oh, yes. The blogs poked fun at his hair and his continual 'barking in booming baritone.' They called him 'The Petite.'"


"That's the guy. He took great pleasure in directing a demolition company to level these two blocks." Albert swept his arm across the window, indicating the expanse of the construction. "Then, he hired an architect and his team to design that 28-story complex."


Stephen looked at the construction, as if studying it in detail.


"Legrand sought me out. Told me in no uncertain terms that he wanted to ensure that his project would be "world class" construction. When I met him, I could see that he was shocked I was no 'spring chicken.' I'm not sure what he was thinking, but he offered me a piddly four thousand doll--" Albert stopped and tapped his fingers on the table to recapture Stephen's attention.


Albert resumed. "From a quick review, I noted that the engineer-of-record, a notorious publicity hound, designed a structural framing scheme that appeared to circumvent life-safety requirements. Understanding the implications of this serious flaw, I initially thought I should stay away from this project. I didn't need the aggravation. But, I love a challenge. I told him that I needed twelve thousand dollars and extended my hand to cinch the contract. It worked." Albert took a sip of tea.


"Please tell me about the work that you did for him." Just as Stephen's eyes widened to focus on Albert, he caught a glimpse of a frantic squirrel attempting to climb a recently-painted parking meter.


"I prepared a detailed report with constructive criticism on design assumptions, interpretation and utilization of the building code, and analytical modeling techniques used in computer analyses. Plus, using the latest seismic criteria, I developed a safe, viable alternative that possessed predictable, reliable performance during ground shaking."


"Wow. It sounds like you were meticulous--covered every base. I hope that Legrand appreciated what you did for him."


"Shortly after I submitted my report, he invited me to his shareholders' meeting. I was pleased when I heard him tell his investors he'd be implementing my recommendations in full."


"Nice closure to the job."


"Nice, yes, but closure came when the check cleared."


Several pigeons appeared out of nowhere, grazed themselves against the window as they circled aimlessly.


"What the--" Stephen shouted, as the ceiling fixtures swayed, racking walls creaked, and dishes crashed to the floor. He pushed himself forward and scrambled to squeeze under the table.


Albert calmly slid away from the window, grabbed hold of the edge of the table, and rotated his torso to observe, occasionally glancing at his wristwatch checking its second hand. Then, he looked up at the ceiling to ascertain the direction of the pulses. During the ensuing twenty-seven seconds of ground shaking, he watched in horror as the fifth and sixth stories collapsed, bringing down the upper stories, which forced the lowest ones to collapse.


Stunned, frozen in place, Albert stared at the immense, unrecognizable pile of rubble. Dozens of steel reinforcing bars and human limbs jutted out from the gaps between large pieces of fractured concrete.


"No one could've escaped," Albert sobbed from inside the café which suffered only minor nonstructural damage. "No one."

Photo credit: E.V. Leyendecker, National Bureau of Standards


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