NOTE: Some names in this story have been changed so some of the people in question can’t sue me post-facto.
I burned the pancakes. Smoke flared from the butter in the red ceramic pan, and filled the kitchen. The fire alarm, somewhere in the living room, started to beep. I grabbed a dish towel and whipped it at the ceiling to clear the monitor.
On a particularly vigorous backswing, I felt and heard the dish towel snap something. Damn. Behind me on the wall, I saw an empty shelf. I looked down. Two crayons, one lavender, one baby blue, lay in pieces on the floor. Surely that wasn’t what had broken? But I looked at the shelf again, and found the two circular dents where the crayons must have stood, proud and tall. I stooped to look at the crayons a little closer. And on the pointy end of the broken lavender crayon—a little tiny face looked back at me! They were little people! Someone had carved them to look like little people!
It was Claire’s birthday. This was not her house. She’d invited me over for pancakes, mimosas, and birthday sex. She was housesitting for some adult friends of hers in the theater community. The house itself was very precious, and gave me the creeps. They had a varnished stump for a coffee table. A vintage stove from the 20’s. Hand-built wooden furniture. And I had broken these…crayons…of theirs. Claire was writing letters outside on the patio, and I had no desire to ruin her birthday or ruin my chances at birthday sex. So I picked up all the pieces of crayon I could find, about seven, pocketed them, and remained silent. We could deal with this later. The golden retriever nosed my armpit and watched me.
“Shhhh, Sam,” I told him. “It’s our secret.” I don’t know if the dog was named Sam. He looked like a Sam, though. Claire came inside. I stood up and made for the kitchen as if nothing was amiss.
The rest of the birthday morning went exactly as planned. I contemplated throwing the crayons out. I was staring into their bathroom trashcan and thinking, If I just ditched them, I could claim ignorance to whatever these things were and never again think about these strange crayon people. But I decided to do the responsible thing. Which was of course take them home in silence and try to repair them. Willow and Dave were expecting, and had asked Claire to housesit while they visited relatives or went on baby-cation or something—I wasn’t sure. What I did know is that I had about a week to repair them and sneak them back in.
I emptied my pockets on my desk and turned on the lamp. It was immediately apparent that the lavender crayon, which appeared to be a girl wearing a dress, was missing a section of her torso. I hoped Sam hadn’t eaten it. I tried tape, first, but that doesn’t really hold broken crayons together unless they’re smooth and uncarved. It also looked terrible. I then thought, what about an internal structure? So I straightened out a paper clip, which is just about the length of a crayon. I then put on a glove and held the metal to our electric burner, which I thought I could use to melt a spinal column into the center of these little people. Lavender would have some exposed skeleton, admittedly, but whatever. It’ll look industrial.
So there I was, wearing oven mitts, holding a paper clip to the burner, to shish kebab pieces of crayon together and this is a terrible idea what am I doing. I took off the oven mitts, turned off the burner, and swept the crayon pieces into an envelope, and forgot about it.
For about a week.
Walking home from choir that Friday, I get a mass text from Claire: “Has anyone seen two little crayons statues that were at Dave and Willow’s house?” My heart dropped. I texted her back, yes, I have them, I was hoping to repair them before anyone noticed. (Half true—I was hoping no one would notice, ever.)
She calls me all of a sudden, sobbing, hysterical, and lays into me. “First of all I have the flu and can’t deal with this shit at all. Secondly, I look like a total asshole because I didn’t even notice.”
“Jeez, sorry. I mean, they’re just crayons, right?”
“Ernie, those were the toppers on their wedding cake. They had them hand-carved to look like them.”
“Oh my god.”
“And they cost seven hundred dollars.” And then the gravity of the situation settled in.
I felt terrible, since I didn’t want Claire taking the blame for this—but I was also beginning to feel the edges of a vast, murky confusion. I dropped my stuff off at home, grabbed the envelope, and walked to Dave and Willow’s house. I knocked. A stocky, bearded dude opened the door.
“Hey,” I said. “I’m the guy who broke your crayons.” He looked at me and sighed, and opened the door. He led me to the kitchen, to the hand-built wooden island, and we sat down. I slid the envelope across the table to him.
“I am so so sorry,” I began, “I feel awful. This was totally not Claire’s fault.”
“Well, thanks for saying something. Did she tell you what they were?”
“Yeah, she said they were your wedding cake toppers.”
“Yeah, yeah…” He sucked in a breath through his teeth. “Did she mention the cost?”
“Yeah, she said seven hundred dollars? I’m happy to help however I can—I broke them by accident and I am totally willing to repay it however.” I explained I was going to Alaska for the summer, interning at a theatre camp, and getting a tiny stipend which I’d forward to him once I got paid, sometime after July.
“Okay, okay.” He looked inside the envelope and made a face. “Eesh. I’d better not show my wife.” We laughed a little knowing man’s laugh, and I wrote down my contact information. He said he’d send an email with details in a few days.
Okay. So at this point I thought the whole saga was over. Claire’s name was clean, my conscience was in the process. But—it already was pretty bizarre. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. Whatever. Some people. I was thinking this was going to be a sneaky way of making adult friends, you know, through some calamitous hijinx, you break their stuff, and donate your labor as a peace offering, and one afternoon, as you’re whitewashing the fence, Willow comes out to the back porch with tall glasses of iced tea and the three of you laugh and bond over an unusual getting-to-know-you story. That was the fantasy, anyways.
This however is where an already weird story takes a much stranger turn. I received this email the following week. The subject read: “crayons.”
diem chau, the artist who created the crayon portraits, has agreed to replace them at a VERY generously reduced rate — $300 for the pair.
i would like you to pay this to me all at once, and not over the course of the summer, as you suggested when we met here at the house. I understand that this will mean some potentially embarrassing borrowing of money from friends that you’ll have to pay back over the course of the summer, but i’m also ok with that being part of your penance.
i do want you to understand what those crayons were, just so you hopefully take greater care around other people’s shit in the future. The crayons were actually a couple of things– they were my wedding present to my wife, willow, and they were the cake-toppers (the little bride and groom) on our wedding cake. since we got married out of the country, i had to package them in custom foam containers, carry them with me to europe, carry them around europe for a month, and then carry them safely home. they were custom carved by diem chau, based on photos i sent her of willow and me, and the dress that willow’s wearing in hers is the wedding dress she wore in our wedding. since i couldn’t see the dress ahead of time, and since willow couldn’t know about the crayons ahead of time, her roommate in france stole the dress out of her closet one day, photographed it, and sent the photo straight to diem so she could carve it.
anyway, the crayons were important. it’s nice that diem can recreate them, but the ones that were actually important to us are gone.
if you feel horrible about this, well, you’re on the right track. it was a dumb thing to do (whatever it was that you did, and i don’t know exactly how this happened, and before you start, i REALLY don’t want to know, i just know that it had to be dumb.) but what concerns me is that claire, who i love and who i trust and in whose hands i put the things that are most important to me, relied on you to do the right thing and you totally failed.
you should have IMMEDIATELY said, “whoah, claire, something bad just happened.” had you done that, your life would be so much better right now.
you should NEVER have left my house with my property. believe it or not, given the value of the items, that was a class II felony.
you should have BEEN HONEST enough to tell claire, sometime in the WEEK between breaking and stealing what was obviously treasured art and being confronted with the problem.
at any point from the moment of the accident to today, you could have made this better for everyone by being honest. it’s really really important that you get that, that you really trust that it’s true. you’re not 12 years old. you need to know by now that honesty really really always makes things better.
if i could, i’d take the assurance that this situation had made you more honest instead of taking your $300.
but i can’t take that assurance, because you’re not honest enough for me to believe you. so i’ll take your $300 instead. please bring it by as soon as you can.
dave and willow
I was stunned. I showed my roommates, Joe and Zoe. They read it, and they were stunned. I sent it to my brother. He was stunned, and told me they were assholes. It remains, to date, the most condescending thing anyone’s ever said to me.
The following correspondence took place over the next week.
Hey Dave and Willow,
I’d really like to pay you back as soon as possible, but I’m really unable to. I’m unemployed and leaving the state for a summer intern job in Alaska mid-May (coming back to Seattle in august). I’m getting a $650 stipend from that job, so I can pay you from that at soon as it’s in my hands. (which could be as early as June, I’m not sure. I can find out for you.) If you could tell me your address, I can mail a check down to you from Alaska as soon as possible. Is that acceptable?
Nothing I can ever do will replace your wedding mementos, and for that I am truly sorry. Concealing my mistake was low. I apologize both for disrespecting your property and autonomy. I appreciate the opportunity to make it up to you, even if it’s only in a meager financial way.
Willow and I have already talked to the artist and asked her to go ahead with recreating the sculptures. We’ll have to pay her this week, so realistically we’re already loaning you the $330 (the extra $30 is the tax). Unfortunately with the baby coming soon we’re really not in a position to loan you the money long-term. But here’s what we can do to help you out some: We’ll loan you the money, without interest or anything, for a month. But we really will need it in a month (June 9).
With you about to leave the state, and since we really don’t know you or anything about you, I hope you won’t be offended that we’ll need you to sign something before you leave, just a gentleman’s agreement acknowledging the debt.
Please let me know when you can come over to the house to sign something.
This is Willow, Dave’s wife.
I’m entering the conversation to say this: your financial situation is really none of our concern. It’s too bad that you’re not getting paid until August, but that’s not information that you should be sharing with us. The logistics of *how* you’re going to pay us back are not our burden to bear. You need to compensate us for the property that you destroyed, and you need to do it in a timely fashion. We have our own financial situation, which is likewise none of your concern. Suffice it to say that we are not in a position to float you $300 for the duration of the summer. Nor should you be asking us to.
What I’m saying is, figure it out. Have you considered asking friends and family to loan you small portions of your debt? Yes, it would be sucky and humiliating to have to go around explaining the situation and asking for help, but, trust me, it would still be less sucky than losing something as precious as the things you broke, and less sucky than spending the whole summer with this hanging around your neck, and less sucky than always looking back on this situation and thinking that you could have done better.
Don’t take advantage of the fact that we are nice people and don’t take for granted that you are getting an *incredible* deal on the replacement cost of these pieces, because the artist is also a nice person. This could have been WAY worse for you. Know that. Making it right is probably not going to be the easiest thing you’ve ever had to do, but it is the appropriate (and easily anticipated) consequence of a deeply thoughtless action. Sucks for you. Sucks worse for us.
Saturday afternoon does not work for us. Sunday evening around 6 would be fine. We’ll expect to see you then. Please come up with a plan for how you intend to pay your debt by June 9th, and please realize what a generous offer that is.
During this week, I would run into people and start telling the story as it was so far, show them the emails, spread the word. Every time we got a new response from the “crayon people,” as they were christened, Joe, Zoe, and I would gather in the living room to read it aloud. The murky confusion surfaced, like a breaching whale. How difficult could it really be to carve these? Zoe began disfiguring a brown crayon to figure it out. (It looked pretty convincing.) We wondered. How much would you spend for crayons? Twenty bucks at the farmer’s market, at most? I can barely imagine spending $700 on a plane ticket. How do people even spend that much on memorabilia to be used, once? Why would getting these “crayon portraits” replaced be so crucial? Was their marriage in the tubes? Why does he think I care that he carried these things around in Europe in a special foam-packed crate? (sounds rough, dude.) Why would you ever say to someone, “I’m okay with that being part of your penance?” Why would you want a “gentleman’s agreement?” How do you earnestly say “Sucks for you. Sucks worse for us.” and not laugh at yourself afterwards? What on earth makes them think they’re nice people? And the million-dollar question, why, why oh why, would anyone invest this much energy into a pair of crayons?
Every person I ran into had some new comment on the story, and they eagerly awaited news.
So finally it was agreed upon that I would go to their house one dour Sunday and sign a “gentleman’s agreement.” I walked from my choir concert on Republican to their house, twenty blocks away, in my tux and best shoes. Dave, the crayon man, opened the door. We made small talk about the choir concert. Sam licked my hands. I scratched his ears.
He led me to the hand-built wooden island, where his wife waited with two pieces of white paper. I sat across from them. The papers were apparently contracts, identical copies. The top half read the following:
“I, Ernie Piper, hereby acknowledge the debt of $330 to Dave Eberhardt and Willow Lavigne, which is to be paid back by June 9th, 2011. This is to replace the Diem Chau sculptures which I stole and destroyed sometime between April 17 and April 22, 2011.”
There were blanks for my address, and signature. Below that were blanks for my “parent or guardian” contact information. They pushed the contract towards me and smiled. They really wanted everything to be smooth. So did I. It was tense.
“Well,” I began, “I’d really like to sign this, but I can’t sign something which says I’ll do something I’m not sure I’m able to do.”
Willow replied first. “We don’t have a goon squad, we don’t have a pack of lawyers we’re going to send to chase you down…” He sucked in a breath through his teeth and said, “Well…”
“That’s fine,” I said, “but even so, I don’t want to sign something which says I’ll come up with a certain amount of money by a certain date if I’m not certain I can do that. I know I can come up with the money by the end of the summer.”
“What about your friends?” She asked. “Have you considered asking around your friends for money, or…”
Dave cut her off. “He knows.” He looked at me. “Well, what do you say?”
I looked at these two strange people across the table from me. “I mean, uh, I told you. I can’t sign something…”
“Do what you need to do and get out,” he spat. The temperature in the kitchen dropped below freezing.
“Do what you need to do, and get out of my house.”
“Change the contract. Do what you need to do, and get out of my house.”
I picked up a pen.
He stood up. “I can’t even be in the room right now.” He left. Willow watched her husband leave. She hesitated, cross-armed, and slowly pivoted to follow him.
Now it was me, inside their perfect kitchen, in my tux and best shoes, at the hand-build wooden island, with Sam the dog, with the contracts in front of me, alone. The house had gone silent. It was a weird moment. I scratched Sam’s ears. I crossed out “June 9th” and replaced it with “August 1st.” I signed my name and number and address, and left the “parent information” blank.
Sam walked me to the door. I was so relieved when I left that I started hollering in the streets, “It’s over, it’s over!” at which point they came outside waving the copies of the contract.
“You didn’t fill–”
“What!” I yelled.
“You didn’t fill out the parent or guardian information.”
I went back to their fence, and took the contract, and wondered how intent they were on suing. I wrote down my address in Alaska, my mom’s name, and bounced.
The summer goes by without a peep. I send them an email to let them know the check’s in the mail sometime the end of July. I think I said “the only situation in which I expect a response is if the check doesn’t come through. Please do not contact me again.”
It was sort of a thrill to send, I’ll admit. But it was only half-true—though they were crazy, I did sort of want them to contact me again. Their emails were really entertaining. And I was richly rewarded.
how dare you email me anything but a contrite apology.
you destroyed something tremendously important to me and my wife, and then you hid and lied about it, and then you were rude to me, and to her, and uncooperative and combative when we asked you to pay HALF the value of what you took.
and then you send me a snotty and rude email like the one below? after i let you leave town with only a promise to pay me when it was convenient for you to do so?
in what world is that okay? under what morality are YOU the injured party here? wow. what are you, like 12?
hey claire, your friend ernie’s a bit of a cunt, isn’t he?
your check had better not bounce.
I don’t know whether crayon man CC’ed Claire for the whole conversation, or just this episode, but either way . I guess she has ’em all now.
I saw him in a coffee shop a few weeks ago with his son. I didn’t recognize him at first, and he introduced me to the barista. “This is Ernie Piper,” he said. “The fourth.” I’ve been walking around Seattle for years now, and it’s a small town. I always expect to see crayon man or crayon lady, and so when the bearded guy sitting with his son turned out to be him, it was a long time coming. And you know what? When I apologized for the whole fiasco, all of it, I truly do wish none of it had happened, he could have said any number of things. It’s okay, it’s all in the past, don’t worry about it, they were just things.
Instead he sucked in a breath through his teeth and said, “thanks for saying something.”
So I went and wrote this whole thing about dave and willow, the crayon people. (There’s an associated game: hold any two objects and quote the crayon people. It’s great. Try it!) Anyways there’s a moral to this whole story which if I were to simplify would be something like “If people didn’t want you to tell stories about them, they would have been nicer,” but it’s probably closer to “if you’re going to get something for your wife, go with diamonds, because diamonds are forever, and crayons only last until some kid whips a dish towel at ’em.”