Giving Back

A bit of Christmas fiction

Illustration by Tom Parsons

Zu Vincent, author of the novel The Lucky Place and numerous short stories for CN&R, among others, holds an MFA in writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts.

Giving Back

It had been twenty years. Conner’s long-awaited delivery sat on the seat beside him in the old cardboard shoebox. On the drive from his mother’s, the area across Main had changed just enough that he worried he wouldn’t recognize Mrs. Franklin’s house. But as soon as the streets widened and the homes rose tall, he found his way. After all, he’d spent the first twelve years of his life prowling these streets, crossing the gap between his own sorry neighborhood and this rich old mansion district. And Elm Street was just as he remembered it. The Victorians drawn back from the sidewalks and buffered by the stately air behind their shrubbery. This time of year, their tall porches and bay windows were edged in Christmas lights, gingerbread strings glowing daintily through the fog.

Mrs. Franklin’s house, however, was not lit up, which caused it to look gloomy next to its glittery neighbors. Still, it was the same fine house he’d remembered. And when he stopped the car, he hesitated in the face of that imposing luxury, wondering at his hubris in bringing the thing back at last. But he couldn’t do otherwise; it had come to weigh too heavy in his life. He needed to be free of it.

The soft echo of his footsteps followed Conner as he took up the shoebox and headed along the cobbled walk, mounted the steps and paused before the tall front door. A chill climbed his back as he remembered the wreath Mrs. Franklin had once hung there. It had looked huge and preposterous to him as a kid, with its forest of fresh holly, mistletoe and pine cones. Conner had never seen real pine cones before that day, and his finger got pricked when he poked at one, and came back sticky with sap.

Funny the things you remember. The door chime was the same, dancing off within the house with an expensive tinkle. Conner shifted the shoebox with its heavy contents into his left hand and waited. The footsteps coming at him from the other side of the door sounded just as Mrs. Franklin’s had, twenty years ago. Merry and light, if memory could be trusted. But the woman who pulled back the heavy wood was not Mrs. Franklin. She was too young, closer to Conner’s age. Conner, who’d become a dentist and usually noted people’s teeth first thing, was taken instead by the part of her full lips and the startled look in her eye.

“Yes?” she said, somewhat impatiently, as if to cover up the hope of someone else ringing the chimes. He was disappointed, too, as in all the times he’d imagined this moment, it was always Mrs. Franklin who answered the door.

He cleared his throat. “Look—I’m looking—I’m here to see Mrs. Franklin.”

“What about?”

“It’s personal.” He tried a smile. “Is she in?”

The young woman looked him up and down, and seemed to judge him acceptable from his overcoat and plished leather shoes. “My aunt passed away a month ago. Were you a friend of hers?”

Dead? The news hit Conner like a blow. “She can’t be.” He clutched the shoebox and looked out at the fog, the late afternoon gray giving way to darkness.

“I’m sorry,” the woman said. “I didn’t mean to upset you. It was upsetting to all of us. Were you a friend of hers? She had so many friends.” Her sympathy made him feel foolish.

“I didn’t expect—I came to return something of hers. Something important that I—oh, man—” he stopped, embarrassed.

She considered the faded shoebox. A car whooshed down the street without stopping, and she sighed. “Do you want to give it to me?”

He shook his head. “Not without explaining.”

She sighed again, and pulled the door open wide. “Come in, then. I’ve just put on some coffee.”

He nodded stepped once again into the great hall, which was as warm and inviting as he remembered. And just as he remembered, gaining entry here under false pretenses filled him with shame, and he felt as if no time had passed, either within him, or in this house. He followed her into the large room with the fireplace, still filled with couches and, he noticed, a half-decorated tree. He sat where she invited him to sit and waited while she got the coffee, balancing the shoebox on his knees. He thought momentarily of ducking out, but then she returned with two steaming mugs to perch opposite him, and he found himself telling his story.


Conner had been ten that Christmas. His pops had run off when Conner was six, so it was just his mom and him. When she was at work, he hung out with his older cousin Randy, which Randy tolerated in a resentful way. Randy was always resentful, though. Randy’s dad, Conner’s Uncle Mac, called Randy a punk, even though Uncle Mac himself was half the time in jail.

They were on their way to the food truck to visit Valerie Gonzales, a girl Randy’s age who worked there with her parents and slipped him free tacos when no one was looking. Randy complained of a toothache, which made him testy. It had rained, and cars swam by on the wet streets. Overhead, the sky was larded with clouds hanging heavy atop the bunched-together stores along Main.

Randy halted suddenly and stared into one of the shop windows. Behind the plate glass several mannequins were hugging skis, snuggled into coats and hats and planted ankle deep in fake snow. A plastic tree dripped red checked balls, and red and white lights marched around the window frame. Beneath the tree an array of opened boxes offered fancy gift ideas. Leather-bound picture frames, glass trinkets and what looked to Conner like diamond necklaces and earrings.

His cousin studied the scene as if those mannequins had come to life and were giving him a message. “You think all that stuff is nice?” He shot Conner a mean look. “All that extra stuff rich people buy at Christmas? When they don’t need any of it?” Randy wore an oversized hooded sweatshirt and jeans whose cuffs bagged down around his ankles, a look that Conner coveted and tried to match.

“Hell no,” Conner agreed, and hunched into his own sweatshirt, imitating Randy’s resentfulness. Then Randy darted across Main, zagging through traffic and the bark of car horns, and Conner raced to keep up.

They ended up in the mansion district. Conner was starving by this time and still thinking of those free tacos, but he didn’t dare tell Randy. Randy looked hot despite the cold outside. Sometimes he would press his fist to his cheek and swear. It was raining again but his cousin shook it off like he did the toothache. He was looking for something, and Conner couldn’t tell what until Randy spied the cat.

The cat was sitting inside the shrubbery under a redwood tree before the largest house on Elm Street. The big tabby was fat and friendly and rolled over for a belly scratch when Randy sneaked onto the grand lawn. In one swift move his cousin lifted the cat, tucked it inside his sweatshirt, and slipped back to the sidewalk. “This cat was just waiting to be kidnapped,” Randy said.

They took it back to Conner’s apartment even though his mom hadn’t paid the electric bill and the gas was turned off, because cold was better than being at Randy’s, where his uncle’s rage could any minute explode and catch you upside the head. Randy had a plan all hatched out for the cat and Conner was at the center of it. “Because it’s Christmastime and you look about eight and have that ‘poor me’ look, that will get you inside,” Randy told him. In the meantime, Conner was to keep the cat out of sight. Randy couldn’t do it because he had to go home and nurse his toothache.

Conner didn’t like Randy’s plan, but he knew he’d do it for a chance at the rough affection Randy sometimes showed him. He found an unopened can of evaporated milk in the cupboard and fed the cat, who started yowling whenever he set him down. The cat’s name, according to its collar, was Demetris. He was vaccinated and belonged to E.F. at number 1919 Elm. Conner was prepared not to like a cat with such a stuck-up name, but in the end he welcomed Demetris tucking up next to him in the icy apartment that night, the cat purring like a small motor. He nicknamed him Taco, since he was still thinking about the food truck, and for once the scrabble of rats on the alley fence didn’t bother him.

The next morning was clear and dry. Wind froze the ends of their noses when they went out. Randy made Conner carry the cat. Conner flung his hood over his uncombed hair and zipped Demetris inside his sweatshirt, wrapping his hands in his sleeves to keep his fingers from freezing. He feared his charge would writhe free of his grasp and run off, or be suffocated if he held on too tight, but the big tabby just hugged up against him as if he couldn’t imagine a world where bad things might happen to him, slipping his head out to peer from beneath Conner’s chin.

Illustration by Tom Parsons

By the time they got to Elm, Conner was shivering despite the bundle inside his sweatshirt. He could tell Randy’s tooth was worse. His cousin’s eyes were as closed as button snaps. “Just look at this place. Why they need all this space?” Randy griped. “With ceilings so high inside you need a twenty-foot ladder to reach them? Just so they can buy useless things to fill it up, that’s why.”

Randy was right. Elm Street looked so much finer than the street where they lived. Sometimes a car would pull up to a house and, watching those mansion district people bring their shopping bags in from the trunk, you knew they had wonderful presents for everyone. Looking in the windows, you knew they were cozy and warm once the door was shut. And Conner, who often had a toothache himself, felt as anxious as if he had one now, too.

When they got to 1919, Randy hunched in the thick shrubbery while Conner shuffled up the cobbled walk alone. At the door, he shifted Demetris so he could hold him with one arm and push the door bell, and he pricked his finger on a sappy pine cone hung in a giant wreath just as chimes went off inside and footsteps sounded.

The tall door opened with a punch of spicy air. The lady who answered looked, as far as he could tell, to be the same age as Conner’s mom, but she looked younger at the same time. She was dressed up nice and smelled like something sugary. She spied Demetris right away and when she called his name the cat leapt out of Conner’s sweatshirt to curl around her ankles.

“His collar said he lives here,” Conner said like Randy had coached him. “I found him yesterday clear across Main.”

“Oh. So far!” She picked Demetris up and the cat melted into her arms. “Demetris, you bad boy. Don’t ever do that again.” She snuggled the cat and smiled at Conner. “Thank you, young man. I’m so grateful.”

Conner reached out and scratched Demetris. The cat purred, found his finger where the pine cone had pierced it, and licked away the drop of blood. “His tongue’s like sandpaper,” Conner said. “I gave him some milk. And he likes it if you call him Taco.” He noticed his fingernails were full of dirt and tucked his hand back in his sweatshirt sleeve.

“Taco?” She shook her cat fondly. “Big old bad Taco? Young man,” she added to Conner. “Why don’t you come in? It’s freezing out. And I should give you a reward.”

“Thank you,” Conner said innocently, seeing he’d pleased her. He stepped into a gigantic hallway wreathed in Christmas boughs, dizzy at the idea of a reward. Two large rooms were to the left and right, and an elegant stairway ahead of him. The door whooshed shut behind him. “I’m Mrs. Franklin,” the lady said. “Emma. Call me Emma. And you are?”


“Come this way, Conner.” He followed her past the stairs and down a long hall to a large, shiny kitchen. She leaned over and the tabby leapt out of her arms and headed for a ceramic bowl. She pulled milk from behind a gleaming refrigerator door and filled the bowl. “He’s always hungry,” she laughed. “How about you? Are you hungry? I was just making up my Christmas boxes. There are cookies on the plate.” The cookies were chocolate chip, the chocolate still melty from the oven. She motioned him onto a high stool at her counter, pushed the plate of cookies toward him and filled him a glass of milk. “Go ahead, take two.”

Conner nodded and lifted the warm cookies from the plate. He thought of saving the second one for Randy, but decided against it because of his toothache, and ate the second one himself.

Mrs. Emma Franklin was probably pretty, for an old lady, but she had a way of smiling when she looked at him that seemed sad. He didn’t know how anyone could be sad in this house. The kitchen was bigger than his whole apartment. He bet she didn’t have rats. He tried to eat slowly. She was smiling and smiling at him in her sorrowful way. He drank his milk.

“Where do you live?”

“Across Main,” he said.

“A house or apartment?”


“I see,” she said, as if she’d figured something out. “Conner, it’s so cold out. Don’t you have a jacket?”

He shook his head. Don’t say much, is what Randy warned. It wasn’t hard to do. Her questions had glued his tongue to his mouth like his mouth was full of pine cone sap.

She came around the counter. “Maybe we can fix that. What size are you? Stand up, let me see.” He stood and she smoothed her hand down his back. “You know, I bet a have a jacket that would fit you. Would you like to try it?”

He shrugged.

“It’s practically brand new. What’s your favorite color? Do you like blue?”

“May I use your bathroom?” Ask to use the bathroom, Randy had told him.

“It’s down that way.” She pointed. “Third door on the left. I’ll get that jacket.”

Conner used the bathroom. When he came out he pretended to be lost and wandered away from the kitchen. He headed into a big room with a desk and bookcases. He’d never seen so many books. Before the books on every shelf were glass shapes. Apples, pears, pomegranates, snowmen, penguins, geese and eggs. It was like Randy said—the house was full of things she didn’t need, expensive things he could take without her even noticing. He fingered a glass egg with a glass fish swimming around inside it. He’d never seen anything like it. He heard Emma Franklin’s footsteps and his heart clattered. Now. Now! He jammed the glass egg in his sweatshirt pocket.

“There you are.” She was coming down the stairs when Conner wandered into the hall. “What do you think of this?” She held out a blue, kid-sized jacket.

“I dunno.” Conner kept both hands in his sweatshirt pockets, one cradling the glass egg. He looked down at his feet.

“I mean, you can have it if you like it. It’s practically brand new.” She hesitated. “It belonged to my son.”

Conner looked up at her. “Won’t he need it?”

Illustration by Tom Parsons

She smiled in that sad way. “No,” she said. “He won’t. In fact, I probably have shoes up there to go with this. If you’d like,” she added, considering. “I don’t suppose your mother would mind? I’d like to find a use for some of his—things. And I just thought—anyway, I don’t want to insult you.”

“What kind of shoes?” Conner asked.

“What kind would you like?”

“Tennis shoes,” he said firmly. He squeezed the glass egg while she checked the size of his feet. He tried the jacket on while she went upstairs for the shoes. It was soft and light feeling. Not anything like Randy would wear.

He wandered into another room. This one was full of couches, a fireplace hung with stockings, and a huge, decorated Christmas tree. The tree was real, not plastic. It looked to Conner as if there were a zillion packages piled up underneath. He imagined all of them being opened, like the ones in the store display window, to reveal expensive, useless things like the glass egg. He stopped at a table full of framed pictures. The pictures were all of the same kid. The kid as a baby boy, a toddler, at five, six, seven and on up until he got a little older than Conner. Then the photos stopped.

Emma Franklin was back again.

“Is that your kid?” Conner asked about the photos.

She bent to set a pair of shoes next to his feet. “These should fit,” she said, straightening. “Why don’t you try them on?” He understood he’d said something wrong, but he didn’t know what.

He slid out of his old shoes and carefully tried on the new ones. Mrs. Franklin sat on a couch across from him with Demetris, who had padded from the kitchen and jumped up in her lap. “They’re too big,” Conner said. He put his old ones back on and tied the broken laces. Mrs. Franklin smiled at him sadly.

“And they’re not tennis shoes,” she said. “They should be tennis shoes. Why don’t you tell me exactly what brand you’d like and come back tomorrow? I’ll have them for you. Brand new. Would that be a good reward for rescuing old Demetris here?” She tugged at the cat’s ruff and kissed his pink nose.

“Sure!” Conner stuck his hands inside the jacket pockets where he discovered a pair of gloves. He didn’t want to tell her for fear she wouldn’t let him keep them. “Can I keep the jacket, too?” he asked.

“Of course!” Mrs. Emma Franklin said.

“What’d you get?” Randy looked half frozen and more resentful than ever when Conner found him. He showed him the glass egg with the fish inside.

“What else?”

“Nothing else,” Conner admitted. “But she said to come back tomorrow. I get a reward for finding the cat.”


“Naw. New shoes.”

“Anyway, you didn’t find him.” Randy looked disgusted, and worried his aching tooth with his tongue. “I did.” His eyes fell on the blue jacket. “Take that off,” he ordered.

Conner stepped back. “She gave it to me.”

“I’m the one been standing out here,” Randy said. “It’s too big for you anyway. Give.”

The cold felt all the worse for taking the jacket off. Conner watched, miserable as Randy found the gloves in the pockets and tried them on. “These are too big for you, too,” Randy said, cinching them down finger by finger.

Mrs. Franklin kept her word. When Conner returned the next day, she led him directly into the big room with all the couches, the fireplace and the huge tree. He spied the shoebox under the boughs before she pointed it out, since it wasn’t wrapped like all the others.

“Go ahead.” Mrs. Franklin said. “Try them on.” She was watching him strangely. At last she said, “Where’s your coat, Conner?”

“I gave it to my cousin. It fit him better,” he added when he saw her frown. “And he was freezing.”

“Oh, Conner.” She sounded disappointed, as if she’d given him something really fine, that he should treasure. But hadn’t she said it was just her kid’s hand-me-down anyway? What did she care who wore it?

He took the shoebox to the couch, sat down and lifted the lid. The new shoe smell hit him and he wanted to make the moment last. He spread open the tissue slowly. “They smell really good!” He examined the shoes. Just what he wanted. He pulled more tissue from the toe of each as he slid off his old pair. He bent and put the news ones on. Laced them up. “May I keep the box, too?” he looked at Mrs. Franklin, who was standing over him.

“Of course,” she said. “How do they fit?”

He stood up, testing the new shoes. “Perfect!” They’d be too small for Randy. Besides, in these shoes he would run so fast Randy couldn’t catch him. “Thank you!” he added, remembering to be polite.

“And thank you for rescuing Demetris!”

Illustration by Tom Parsons

Conner thought she might want to hug him, so he ducked and went over to study the Christmas tree. Mrs. Franklin’s phone rang. “That will be the call I’m waiting for,” she said. “I’ll have to be off soon.”

Conner nodded, but her words had seized him stock still. He looked down at the mound of presents waiting under the tree. It irked him suddenly that his box hadn’t been wrapped. That all these wrapped presents were left yet no more for him, and she was busy and he was meant to leave. She hadn’t even let him say goodbye to good old Taco. He listened as her voice rose and fell from the other room. He stalked over to the table with the photos of her kid. How many of those presents were for the boy in the pictures? Probably the whole truck load. Conner bet Mrs. Franklin’s kid never had to wear a too big hand-me-down jacket and cast off gloves. Thinking this, it wasn’t Randy’s resentment that rose up in him now, but his own.

He picked up one of the larger picture frames. If you asked him, Mrs. Franklin’s kid looked sickly, especially in the last few pictures. But that’s not what caught his attention. Behind the frame was an elaborately carved wooden box. He hadn’t noticed it yesterday. It had a brass latch with a little lock, and looked very expensive. He tried the lock but it wouldn’t open. The box itself felt heavy when he lifted it. He left the photo and carried the box back to the couch where he kicked his old shoes out of sight. The box was kind of large but it still fit inside his empty shoebox.

The wreath on Mrs. Franklin’s heavy door swayed when Conner tugged it open. He was already on the porch when Mrs. Franklin reappeared. She smiled at him sorrowfully. “Merry Christmas, Conner!” She waved as he tripped down the steps.

“Merry Christmas!” Conner yelled back. He clutched the shoebox and ran down her cobbled path in his perfect-fitting shoes.

Back at his apartment, Conner used an old screwdriver to work the brass lock from the wooden box. Randy, who’d gotten into Conner’s mom’s whiskey to make his toothache go away, sat across from him at the small kitchen table. He was still wearing the blue jacket. Conner hinged the lid open. Inside the lid was another photo, this time of Mrs. Franklin’s kid hugging a big old dog but looking as sickly as ever. Beneath the photo was a little engraved plaque reading, “Our beloved Georgie—1984-1995.” Conner was confused. Why was the box full of what looked like ash? He fished around in the ash to see what was buried there, and lifted out something long and white.

“That’s like, a piece of bone,” Randy said when he held it up. His cousin peered over the box lid. “It is bone. And that’s a bunch of ashes. You stole somebody’s ashes.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean that’s somebody’s ashes!” Randy laughed. “Like somebody died and they burned them up and these are their ashes. You stole cremation ashes, you dope.”

Conner dropped the bone back in the box. He rubbed at his ashy hand, horrified. “It’s that kid. In the photo.”

“What kid?” Randy took another swig of whiskey.

“Him. Mrs. Franklin’s son.” Conner turned the box so Randy could see the boy’s sickly face. He felt sick, too. It all made sense now. Hadn’t Mrs. Franklin said her son was gone? Hadn’t she given away the jacket because he didn’t need it anymore? Hadn’t she smiled sorrowfully at him the whole time he was in her house? She had been looking at Conner and seeing her dead kid!

“Hey, I’m wearing a dead kid’s jacket.” Randy stared down at the blue jacket and Conner was glad he wasn’t wearing it anymore.

“We can’t keep these.” Conner slammed the box lid. “We have to take them back.”

Randy tugged the jacket zipper up a bit and laughed a whiskey-drunk laugh. “Go ahead,” his cousin said. “See where that gets you.”

Conner always meant to return those ashes, but somehow never did. For a couple of years he agonized over it, imagined ringing Mrs. Franklin’s bell and apologizing. He just couldn’t bring himself to do it. He couldn’t face what she would think of him, a low little thief, taking advantage of her to steal her dead son’s ashes, at Christmas no less! Then it seemed he’d waited too long and it was too late to apologize, and he merely tucked the box away in his closet and left it there. But those ashes haunted him, so much so that they caused everything to change. Not that he could have articulated it then, but along the way his theft showed him it wasn’t money that gave you privilege, but life. And he gradually learned to live his differently. He and his cousin grew apart, and Conner got serious about school, graduated with honors and decided on college, dental school.

Now here he was, sitting in Emma Franklin’s big old Victorian, come to make amends at last. Only too late, he reminded himself, looking across at her niece as he finished his story, the faded shoebox still resting on his knees. “I hope you’ll take this with my apologies,” he finished, pulling the lid off the faded shoebox to reveal the carved wooden box inside. “I’m sorry,” he paused. “I don’t even know your name.”

“Emma,” she said, “after my aunt. But I don’t understand.” She took the wooden box from him. “You must be in the wrong house. My aunt didn’t lose a son. He’s alive and well. He’s a lawyer in Seattle. That’s why I’m here, I take care of the house for him.”

“Open the box.” Conner insisted. “It’s inside the lid. His picture. And the inscription. Our beloved Georgie, 1984-1995.”

She pulled up the lid. Shook her head as if to choke back a laugh. “You’re wrong. Georgie wasn’t her son. His name is Peter.”

“Then who was he?”

She turned the box with its faded photo and inscription toward him. “Him. The dog.”

Conner gaped at her.

“My aunt loved animals.” Emma grinned. “She had a cat once she babied to death.”


“Demetris.” Her grin widened.

“But she said her son was gone. She said she missed him. She gave me his jacket.” Conner couldn’t believe this.

“She did miss him. Peter spent Christmases with his dad after the divorce. Aunt Emma hated that.” She got up and settled the box in its place among the photos, watching out the window as car lights traveled across the glass and moved on. Perhaps whomever she was waiting for wouldn’t show up after all. She turned back, laughing outright now. He couldn’t tell if she was laughing at him, or with him.

“A dog!” Conner took a breath and in the next breath he was laughing, too. What did it matter? “My whole life was changed because I stole the ashes of a dog! This is so, so—”


He gulped air, agreeing. “I should go,” he managed. You’re waiting for someone, I can tell. And I—I guess I did what I came to do.”

Yet he lingered. He was laughing too hard and so was she. And it felt pleasant and he didn’t want to leave. He deserved, as much as anyone, to be here.