Home Stories The Sun and the Moon and the Stars by Barry Garelick

The Sun and the Moon and the Stars by Barry Garelick


Mark, feeling down about his job, is energized after meeting a German businessman interested in building a coal-fired power plant in California.

Image generated with OpenAI

It was late September in the almost mid-Eighties in San Francisco, at the end of a particularly bad period at the company where Mark worked. The firings had stopped, but upper management still met frequently behind closed doors, saying nothing when they emerged. Mark was not happy at his company. Bad economic times made consulting firms even more difficult to work in than in good times. In good times, it was easier to move around to other jobs; now they were hard to impossible to find.

He had worked for the company for four years. It was where he had met his wife Anne who had been fired along with many others. His boss, Bill, had worked there for ten years, wore suits more often than required, and walked with a slight stoop. They were both in their mid-thirties. Like many at that age, they were trying to make it big in a field that they hadn’t planned to be in. Bill and others who had risen to middle-management reminded Mark of children playing “grown-up” by putting on their parents’ clothes. San Francisco was full of such people, and not just in management; people starting businesses, from restaurants to cookie companies, to stores that sold old post cards. One good outcome of the recession and the bad economy was that the age of dilettante entrepreneurship was ending.

On a Friday afternoon Bill called Mark into his office. “I got a call from someone – Herr Wied he said – he could barely speak English,” Bill said. “He’s visiting from Germany; he wants to build a 30 megawatt coal fired power plant in the Port of Stockton. He’s looking for a firm who knows the environmental regulations.”

“A 30 megawatt coal-fired power plant?” Mark said. “I’m glad to see the entrepreneurial spirit is still alive and well.”

Mark and Bill were both in their mid-thirties. “He’s staying at the Hilton in San Francisco; he wants to meet with LaCroix for dinner. Tonight. LaCroix wants us there. Herr Wied is bringing his own interpreter,” Bill added. LaCroix was a Frenchman and a no-nonsense executive who the company had recently transferred from Chicago to head up the San Francisco office.

“Rather short notice for all this.”

“This is pretty important, Mark.”

Ah, there it was: “This is pretty important, Mark”. He made a mental note to tell Anne later that Bill used “the phrase” as Mark called it. Next, Bill would likely decide they needed to draft a quick proposal.

“We should also draft together a quick proposal that we can hand to him. That’ll make us a lot of points with this guy.”

Another pet phrase: “A lot of points.”

“We’ll need to look smart about the county requirements,” Bill said.

And another – Bill was batting a thousand: “We’ll need to look smart.”

“We probably should try to sell him a ‘reconnaissance’ identifying all the permits and requirements.”

Things had certainly changed from when Mark started at the company. Projects had to be at least $25,000 to warrant going after. Now the company was scrambling for projects like this one which was worth maybe $5,000, if that. “It could lead to some good work down the line,” Bill said.

More pie-in-the-sky thinking. It was unlikely it would lead to anything given that a coal-fired power plant didn’t have a snowball’s chance, what with California’s stringent environmental regulations. But business was business.

Bill pushed his glasses up with his index finger. “Can you draft something up?” he said. “Come see me when you’re ready.”

Later that evening, Bill and Mark stood on either side of LaCroix in the busy lobby of the Hilton Hotel in San Francisco. They stood waiting for the German industrialist to emerge from the bank of elevators.

At one point LaCroix broke the silence to ask Mark how Anne was doing. Anne had met LaCroix when she visited the Chicago office before his transfer. She had lived in France for six years and knew some of the engineers that LaCroix had worked with when he lived there.

A group of people in various forms of dress filed out of one of the elevators. The last person to emerge was a short, thin, white-haired man in his sixties, who wore checkered pants bunched around his waist. He was accompanied by a young man with blond hair, and a steadfast confident gaze. The old man pointed at LaCroix who nodded his head and smiled.

“You are LaCroix?” the old man asked in a slow English, and extended his hand. “I talked to Bill on the phone this morning. My English is not so good, so I bring my own interpreter, if you don’t mind.”

“Not at all,” LaCroix said. “My car is downstairs. There’s room for all of us.”

“Yes, I do not take up much room,” Wied said.

When all were seated in LaCroix’s car, Wied began talking. “I would like to tell you how I got started in the power generation business but it is a long story. I will tell you some things about myself, and what I’ve done, and then I will ask you a question.”

He spoke in German, the interpreter translating. He told a long convoluted story that took them from the hotel, through Chinatown, and finally finished after they were seated at a restaurant in the financial district of San Francisco. Wied came from the Saarland in Germany, he said – coal country. His family fled Germany in the thirties – “When things became difficult for Jews,” he said – and lived in the Soviet Union where he learned to speak Russian. He made connections there – enough so that after the war he was invited to join the Communist Party. His family decided that this probably wasn’t a good idea, he said. They sneaked back into Germany where he went to work as a draftsman for an engineer who designed and built small power plants.

“I did quite well there and was eventually made a partner,” he said. The company built a power plant for the City of Saarbrucken in the 1950s and had a good relationship with the Mayor. The city was growing and eventually needed to build an extension to the plant.

“Now I am coming to the end of my story, Monsieur LaCroix,” Wied said. They were seated at the restaurant and had placed their orders. “The Mayor called me in one day and told me they will ask for bids for the new power plant, but if I really wanted the job, perhaps there could be something in it for everyone. He asked me if I knew what he meant. I said yes.”

He paused and took a sip of water while the interpreter translated. “I assume you know what he was talking about, do you not, Monsieur LaCroix?”

“I think I do,” LaCroix said.

“Good. Now here is my question. What would you have done? Would you have said ‘Yes, I’ll go along with this’ just to get the job?”

All focused on LaCroix who now looked around the table and after a slight pause said, “Why not?” and laughed. All laughed with him.

“I appreciate your honest answer,” Wied said. “I told him ‘no’. What I do to stay alive is one thing; what I do to stay in business is another. I am an honest man, and though our answers are different, perhaps they are not that different in the end. I can tell that you are honest. So as long as we are being honest, I will tell you that I am interested in the US because of my son. He would be in charge of the venture in Stockton.”

LaCroix looked at Wied. “I see. This project will be for your son, then?” LaCroix asked.

“Yes. We have talked quite often about this, my son and I. I am getting old and my son is getting ambitious. He speaks English well and wants to live in the United States. So now you know. I have no secrets here. I understand it is difficult in California. Some tell me it is impossible to get permits here, I should give it up, but I want to know what you think.”

LaCroix raised his eyebrows, but before he could speak Bill started to answer, moistening his lips and leaning forward, his hands clasped in earnestness.

“I won’t tell you that it will be easy,” Bill said. “But we would need to know more information. The first step is to identify all the environmental permits and regulations that are involved. And that is what we would prepare for you.”

“And your firm knows these regulations?” Wied asked.

“Mark here is our expert on that,” Bill said. “He used to work for the Environ-mental Protection Agency. So he knows first-hand how the system works.”

“Tell me how it works!” Wied said, pointing to Mark who laughed. “Why do you laugh?”

“It’s a bit complicated,” Mark said.

“Make it simple so that an old German can understand.”

Mark, prodded by Wied’s questions, tried to explain the complexities involved in terms that were probably over-simplified. As he talked, he felt oddly alive, as if on-stage. Occasionally Bill chimed in, but not to upstage or interrupt. Those moments of impromptu teamwork brought back to Mark the positivity he once felt about the company and for Bill; and the times when the two of them would talk about anything as if they were two old friends for whom there was a palpable mutual respect.

“Thank you,” Wied said after Mark had finished. “I see you are not new to all this.” Turning to LaCroix, he added “I have a good feeling about your firm. Once I pick a company, I am loyal to that company. But to pick my company in the first place, I must be happy. And how do I know when I am happy?”

LaCroix placed his fork and knife to one side on his plate and looked at Wied, “I hope it is that you trust the people who will be working for you.”

“Yes. That is correct. You must convince me that you can do the work but you must also convince me that you know how to laugh.”

“Yes, I agree,” LaCroix said. “It is good to know one another.”

“Exactly; everything must be right.” Wied looked up at the ceiling and pointed to an imaginary sky. “It is the sun and the moon and the stars. They must be exactly right.”

“Of course,” LaCroix said.

“There are still things I need to know, naturally. Like your terms, the price, and what you will do for me. And the price must be a fixed price. One price for the project that you will not exceed.”

“We will write you a letter, Herr Wied,” LaCroix said. “We will give you a price.”

“Yes, a fixed price,” he said again. “And when can you get me the letter? I will be back in Germany by Monday.”

Bill sat forward, looking like a waiter ready to take an empty plate away. LaCroix put his hand on Bill’s arm and said “Do you think we can have a letter ready for Herr Wied by early next week, Bill?

Bill hid his surprise well. “Absolutely!”

“We will write a detailed letter about what we will do with our fixed price,” LaCroix said.

“Ah yes, that would be good,” Wied said. “The sooner the better. And you will let me pay for this meal, please?”

“I can’t let you do that,” LaCroix said. “It has been taken care of, Herr Wied. This restaurant knows me very well; they will forward the bill to me. I appreciate your intentions.”

“Let me propose a toast then,” Wied said and raised his glass. “To a long lasting and beneficial relationship; to the sun, and the moon and the stars. Prosit!”

“Prosit,” LaCroix said, looking at Wied as if he were a dear friend.

“You are a good businessman, LaCroix,” he said.

“I better be,” he said. “If I stay out this late, it had better be because of business. Otherwise my wife will be very angry with me. Hauspolizei, you know!”

Wied laughed loudly, showing silver fillings and a tongue red with wine. “Ah Hauspolizei! Yes, you know some very good German,” he said in English.

“Hauspolizei?” Bill asked.

“The ‘house police’,” Mark said. “Usually meaning one’s wife.”

“Right. I have that going on, too,” Bill said. There was a brief silence, and Bill excused himself. “I’ll be right back,” he said.

Wied appeared thoughtful. He looked at Mark and addressed him in English.

“You understand German?”

Ein bisschen,” Mark said.

Ein bisschen. Good. We speak without the interpreter?”

“I’m not that good,” Mark said.

“We try?”

“All right,” Mark said, and they began, LaCroix looking on with interest.

“What is your last name again?” Wied asked.


“Hausner. You are Jewish?”


“And your boss? Bill? He is Jewish also?”

“No,” Mark said. Wied nodded and looked out into the room.

“Where is your family from? No, let me guess. Poland?”

“Yes, and Russia,” Mark said.

“Yes; that is where I would have said they were from.”

“He understands German well,” Wied said, turning to LaCroix. The two made small talk as they waited for Bill to return. The tables in the room now were mostly empty, and their waiter stood near the kitchen doors.

Outside, LaCroix hailed a cab for Wied and his very tired looking interpreter. Wied waved to the three of them as the cab pulled away.

“We will want to be careful with him,” LaCroix said. “That’s why I didn’t want to give him your letter tonight.”

“He’s crafty,” Bill said.

“I have met people like him before. They can be extremely bitter. They never get the hatred out of their system. He is the type who will run us ragged, and who knows if this project will lead to others.” LaCroix ran his hands over his eyes and appeared to be thinking. “I would give him a price of $10,000.”

Mark looked at LaCroix in surprise. “We thought it was worth $5,000,” he said.

“I know,” LaCroix said. “But that is how it is done under a fixed price contract. One price, unalterable, unless the scope changes; and he will try to change it and tell us it was part of the original scope. Believe me. Wied knows all this. He is not stupid.” LaCroix pulled the sleeves of his jacket down and shifted his shoulders. He took out a handkerchief and blew his nose. “But he likes us, I think.”

Bill looked at his watch; he would stay there all night until he was dismissed, Mark knew. “Well done, gentlemen,” LaCroix said, and shook their hands. “Does anyone need a ride anywhere?”

“No thanks, I’m taking the train back to Berkeley,” Bill said.

“Very well. Mark? A lift home? You live in San Francisco, right?”

“It’s out of your way,” Mark said. “I’ll take a cab.”

“That’s fine,” he said pausing for a moment as he watched Bill head for the train station. A cab was waiting at the curb halfway down the block from the restaurant. “There is a cab; I’ll walk with you.”

LaCroix asked what Wied had said to Mark in German, and Mark told him. LaCroix nodded, showing no apparent reaction. “I can tell that Wied likes you. He trusts you. I think you should be the contact on this project. You should be in charge.”

“I believe Bill wants to manage it.”

“Yes, yes, I understand. Bill will manage it. In title. But I want you to be the contact with Wied. I’ll talk to Bill about it. Don’t worry. We’ll talk more on Monday.” They shook hands, as if sealing a deal, and LaCroix opened the cab door for Mark. “Give Anne my best,” he said, and shut the door.

Mark felt dizzy from the wine and he closed his eyes in the cab, but as if under a force of their own, they kept opening. He thought about the day, the meeting with Wied, and his questioning whether Bill was Jewish, and was left with a feeling of sadness. The buildings of the financial district give way to the apartments of Nob Hill, and as they descended from Powell Street, the neighborhood changed again until they arrived in front of his apartment building.

At home, Mark started to undress quietly in the bedroom and then sat on the edge of the bed where Anne lay sleeping. He looked at a bright star above the dark outlines of apartment buildings. He held his hand out and blotted out the bright point of light with his thumb.

“What time is it?” Anne asked.

“I thought you were asleep.”

“I was. What time is it?”

“Ten thirty,” he said. “The old man liked to tell long stories.”

Anne yawned and pulled the covers up around her. “He told stories all night?”

“Yes. Long ones. Even his interpreter seemed tired of him.”

Mark took off his shirt and tossed it on the chair in the corner. “It was a long night.”

“How was Bill?”

“Bill was OK. I felt sorry for him a little.”

“Why would you feel sorry for Bill?”

“I feel sorry for everyone tonight.”

“I’ll bet you impressed LaCroix tonight.”

“Hard to say.”

“What did you talk about?”

Good question, he thought, the flurry of words said that evening spinning in his head. “The sun and the moon and the stars,” he murmured.


“I’ll tell you tomorrow,” he said, climbing into bed, facing the window. Anne placed her legs behind his, and rested her hand on his stomach. A numbing tiredness climbed through his body. He imagined himself sitting at breakfast, telling her everything he could remember, everything that happened.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here