Excerpt from One Good Turn



“HEY, SOMEBODY turn on the tube and catch a weather report,” Taylor hollered as he carried the platter with the steaks outside to the deck, where the gas grill was heating up. “Find out whether or not we’re going sailing tomorrow.”

The blond one filled two stemware glasses with chablis and beckoned Luke to follow her out of the kitchen. He couldn’t remember her name—Allie or Ellie—but he understood that he was supposed to entertain her. Taylor was obviously in hot pursuit of her dark-haired cousin, whom he’d ushered out onto the deck to keep him company while he barbecued the steaks. Both cousins were pretty, both slim and smart and stylish in their white slacks and brightly colored T-shirts. It amazed Luke to think that Taylor actually knew women like this. Back home on Long Island, most of the women Luke knew were either too young, too old, neurotic or married.

These two—Suzanne and Ellie or whatever—couldn’t be so easily categorized. If they were older than Luke and Taylor it wasn’t by more than a year or so, and in the half hour since they’d arrived at Taylor’s house in Harwich Port they hadn’t exhibited any obvious neuroses. Taylor had promised Luke, when he’d invited him to spend the summer at his beach-front house on the Cape, that he would meet plenty of women in the Bay State’s vacationland. It was an offer Luke couldn’t refuse.

“There’s the TV,” said Ellie, gliding across the living room to turn the television set on to the six o’clock news broadcast out of Boston. “Pray for sun, Luke. I love sailing, don’t you?”

“Oh—are you going to be coming on the boat with us?” Luke asked, then gave himself a mental kick. He should have said, “Would you like to come on the boat with us?” and then she would have said, “Sure,” and he’d have gotten to spend the following day watching her fine blond hair blow in the breeze as Taylor navigated his twenty-eight footer through the tranquil waters of Nantucket Sound. That was the way these things were done: the woman hinted and the man picked up on the hint.

Luke wasn’t used to this. Four years as a public school teacher in a family-oriented community, two of those years as one half of a steady relationship, and he’d forgotten the way the game was played. Taylor had insisted that before long Luke would remember all the rules and the moves, but at the moment he was feeling kind of rusty.

Ellie stepped over the glass-topped coffee table, scooping up the remote control on her way, and dropped onto the leather couch. She nestled into the cushions and took a sip of wine. “Have you got a preference?” she asked.

“I beg your pardon?”

“Which news show do you prefer?”

“Oh, I don’t care,” he said, sitting next to her. Her subtle smile informed him she was glad to have him there, and he leaned back and extended his legs under the table. “I’ve only been here a couple of days—not long enough to develop any viewer loyalty.”

Ellie chose a channel and tossed the remote control back onto the coffee table. Then she curled her legs up under her and turned to Luke. “Taylor said you live on Long Island.”

Luke nodded. She had pretty eyes, he noticed, an unreal turquoise color. One of his students had arrived in class one day with her previously pale blue eyes transformed into that odd turquoise shade, and when he’d questioned her about the change she’d explained that the contact lenses currently being manufactured had really bodacious tints.

He wondered whether Ellie was wearing contacts. He couldn’t believe her eyes were that color naturally.

“I live in Bethpage,” he said.

“Bethpage?” Ellie trilled a laugh. “It sounds like a girl’s name.”

“It does,” Luke concurred.

“Is it nice there?”

Small talk. He’d forgotten how tedious it could be. “It’s a typical New York middle-class suburb,” he answered politely. “I like it all right. I wish the school system was a little more progressive, but it’s not a bad place to work.”

“That’s right—Taylor told me you’re a teacher.”

“High school social studies.”

She contemplated him, curiosity sparkling in her blue-green eyes. Luke presumed that she didn’t make a habit of socializing with school teachers. According to Taylor, Ellie was a consultant who specialized in putting together financial packages for the construction of mini-malls. Her cousin Suzanne, Taylor had informed Luke, managed a mutual fund for one of Boston’s major investment firms. They were going to be staying at the harbor club for only a week, but Boston wasn’t so far away if Luke took a fancy to Ellie.

He ought to take a fancy to her. His first impression of her was positive. She had plenty going for her.

“Taylor’s so lucky, being in the restaurant business,” Ellie remarked. “He can go sailing in the morning, host the occasional barbecue, and still take care of his professional obligations. He has such flexible hours. Then again, teaching has great hours, too, doesn’t it.”

Luke shook his head. “People assume it does,” he said, “but just because the kids leave at three-thirty doesn’t mean the teachers do. I coach the soccer team, and then there are meetings, prep work and all—and invariably I bring work home to do in the evenings.”

“Yes, but you’ve got the whole summer off,” Ellie pointed out.

“This is the first summer I’ve taken off since I started teaching. I usually teach summer classes and help run a neighborhood soccer program. This summer, though…” He shrugged. “I decided to give myself a break.”

There was more to it than that, of course. There was the inheritance he’d received after his grandfather’s death last January, a sum of money the likes of which Luke hadn’t contended with since he’d turned his back on his father and law school seven years ago. There was the fact that Taylor was considering the purchase of a second restaurant and was looking for a silent partner just when Luke was looking for something in which to invest part of his windfall.

And then there was the break-up. There was the gradual, irrefutable realization that he didn’t love Linda as much as he wanted to, that after two years he hadn’t been able to convince himself that she was the woman with whom he wanted to spend the rest of his life. There was the pain of facing that unpleasant truth with her, and the harrowing fear that no woman would ever measure up, and the bewilderment over why, when he was a tolerant, easy-going man in every other aspect of his life, he continued to demand perfection in a woman—especially given that he wasn’t sure what such perfection entailed. All he knew was that Linda fell short, and that Ellie—bright, ambitious, attractive Ellie—would probably fall short as well.

On the television, the male half of the anchor team was reporting on a community march against drugs in Dorchester. Luke asked Ellie to tell him about her work.

She launched into a monologue about her strategies for financing commercial construction. He should have found the subject fascinating. Even during the lean years, when his modest salary barely spread thin enough to cover the rent on his house and the grad school loans he’d had to take when his father had cut him off, Luke had enjoyed reading the business pages, following the markets, theorizing about investments. He had never had anything against wealth.

Now the lean years were over. He had a lot of money, and he was looking for something to do with it. He would be wise to pay attention to the opinions of a woman with a Harvard M.B.A.

Yet he had to exert himself to listen to Ellie. He struggled against the temptation to gaze out the picture windows at the expanse of dune grass leading down a steep slope to the beach, or to watch the television report on the righteous, law-abiding citizens of Dorchester. He had to force himself to nod and look intrigued and say, “Oh?” at the right junctures.

This should be easy. Ellie was fantastic. Why did he have to work so hard at it?

“Can I get you some more wine?” she asked after draining her own goblet.

He looked at his scarcely touched wine. “No, thanks,” he said, exercising etiquette by rising to his feet. “I’ll get you some more, though.”

Grinning, she stood and pushed him back onto the sofa. “No, I’ll get it. I’ve got to powder my nose, anyway.”

Returning her grin, he watched her saunter confidently out of the living room. Then he slumped against the cushions and groaned. He wished there was some discreet way of assuring her that if this dinner party turned out to be a bust the fault lay solely with him. He took a sip of his wine and grimaced at its watery flavor. What he needed was a beer. And maybe a new personality.

On the television, the story about the drug protestors ended and the male anchor said, “Could there be some rain on the way? We’ll have a complete forecast coming up.”

“Also,” the female anchor said with a somber expression, “Date rape: on the increase. We’ll have a special report from Mary Ann Gavin when we get back.”

Theme music, fade out, and then a commercial for a brand of motor oil. Luke contemplated his wine glass for a minute, then stood and crossed to the window. Straight ahead he viewed the grassy slope, the weathered wood steps leading down to a narrow strip of white sand, the gray water stretching out to the horizon and a few innocuous clouds scattered across the evening sky. If he angled his head, he could see part of the deck that extended out from the kitchen and dining room. He glimpsed the jaunty umbrella shading the circular table, which was set with four matching place mats, silverware and napkins. Suzanne lounged in a chair, sipping a tall drink. Taylor was arranging the steaks on the grill and telling her something, apparently a joke. She threw back her head and laughed.

“Date rape,” the anchor woman’s voice intoned through the television’s stereo speakers. “It’s also called acquaintance rape, and it’s on the rise in the Bay State and elsewhere. Here with a special report…”

Luke watched through the window as Taylor leaned over Suzanne, whispered something in her ear and ignited a fresh gale of laughter. Taylor was as good at the game as ever. When they’d roomed together at Princeton, Luke had managed to hold his own with women, but Taylor had always been a pro.

“…And closer to home,” came the reporter’s voice, “jury selection began today in the case of a man charged with the rape of a Tufts University student he’d been dating for several months. Some observers claim that the length of the couple’s relationship will make it impossible to prosecute this case. Not so, says attorney Jennifer Perrin from the Middlesex County D.A.’s office…”

Jennifer Perrin? Jenny? Luke spun away from the window and sprinted across the room, halting just inches from the TV set and dropping to his knees. He stared at the woman shown sitting at a broad desk in front of a wall lined with shelves of leather-bound legal volumes. The woman had a delicate face, a pointy little chin, and vivid red hair cut in a sleek chin-length style. She was wearing the sort of gold button earrings Luke tended to associate with his mother, and a severely tailored blazer and high-necked blouse which seemed inappropriate to the late June weather. She clasped her hands primly on her blotter.

Jenny Perrin. Not the most common name in the world, nor the most unusual. That fiery red hair, though—the red hair and the hazel eyes and that wonderful stubborn chin of hers… It was Jenny, all right.

He struggled to overcome his shock in time to absorb her words. “The issue in this case isn’t whether the victim knew him, whether she dated him, whether she believed herself in love with him.” Much about this Jennifer Perrin on TV was nothing like the Jenny he remembered, but her voice was exactly the same. It still had that slightly husky edge to it, a quality reminiscent of someone just coming off a mild case of laryngitis. “What this case—like any other rape case—is about,” she asserted, “is that the victim said no. Unfortunately, a lot of men still refuse to accept that when a woman says no she means it. That’s why we have laws, and that’s why we’re prosecuting Matthew Sullivan. His girlfriend said no and he forced himself on her. It’s rape, pure and simple.”

The camera cut away but Luke remained where he was, transfixed. Jenny Perrin an attorney? He laughed in disbelief.

“What’s so funny?” Ellie asked as she glided across the room to join him on the rug in front of the television, her glass refilled.

“Nothing,” he said, shaking his head to clear it.

“That was about rape.”

“I know.” He suppressed the impulse to continue laughing, although every time he thought of Jenny seated in that stern blazer in front of all those law books he felt a strange tickle in his chest. Jenny a lawyer. Jenny a prosecutor. Incredible.

Ellie was giving him a peculiar look, and he hastened to justify his reaction to the news report. “It was the attorney they just interviewed,” he told her. “She was a friend of mine years ago. I never imagined she’d wind up being a lawyer.”

Ellie continued to study him, a knowing smile teasing her lips. “An old girlfriend, hmm?”

“Well…I guess you could say that.” No point trying to explain the mystifying complexities of the summer he’d spent with Jenny Perrin, the intensity of their bond, the neediness that had evolved into profound love. Girlfriend didn’t begin to describe what Jenny had been to him.

But it had all been so long ago. Why strive for precise definitions at this point?

A meteorologist appeared on the screen, backed by a map outlining the six New England states. He gesticulated toward various isobars, singled out various highs and lows, discussed a weather system moving south out of Canada. None of it registered on Luke. All he could think of was that Jenny Perrin was a lawyer—somewhere in the Boston area. Jenny Perrin. Jenny.

The woman who’d saved his life.

“The steak is done,” Taylor announced from the living room doorway. “Pink in the center, dripping with juices. Grab it now or forever hold your peace.”

“Fifty percent chance of rain for tomorrow,” Ellie informed him as she turned off the television. She lifted her glass and stood. “Come on, Luke,” she said, extending a hand to him.

He was supposed to help her to her feet, wasn’t he? Well, Ellie was apparently a liberated woman, as willing to initiate chivalrous measures as to be the object of them. Attempting a weak smile, Luke took her hand and let her hoist him off the rug.

“What’s with you?” Taylor asked, eyeing his friend. “You look like you got bitten by something.”

“An old girlfriend of his was just interviewed on the news,” Ellie explained.

“Linda?” he guessed, surprised.

Luke shook his head. “Jenny Perrin.”

“Jenny?” Taylor grimaced and made a gagging noise at the back of his throat. He knew better than anyone else how Jenny had demolished Luke. He’d been the one to pick up the pieces and glue Luke back together again. Despite the passage of seven years, Taylor obviously hadn’t forgiven Jenny for breaking his best friend’s heart.

Luke had forgiven her—more or less. Truth was, he had simply forced himself to stop thinking about her. He had embraced the good things she’d taught him, the values she’d imparted to him, but he’d deliberately put thoughts of the woman herself out of his mind.

“She’s a lawyer in the Middlesex County D.A.’s office,” he told Taylor, stepping aside so that Ellie could precede him out onto the deck.

“Jenny Perrin? An assistant D.A.?” Taylor’s snort implied that he found the idea as preposterous as Luke did.

Suzanne was already seated at the table when they reached it. Ellie sat across from her, Luke between them with his back to the house. Taylor tossed the salad with a flourish, ground a liberal amount of fresh pepper onto the greens and then sliced the warm loaf of sourdough bread.

“Who was this woman?” Ellie asked Taylor.

“Luke’s first love.”


“Eons ago,” Taylor added, smiling at Suzanne. “A summer romance. You know how these torrid summer romances can be.”

Suzanne returned his cryptic smile. “No, but maybe I’ll find out soon.”

“Maybe you will,” Taylor agreed with a wink.

Luke followed the conversation superficially. He laughed with the others, made a few jokes, passed the butter and the salt. But his gaze kept straying to the beach beyond the deck, the rhythmic roll of the waves breaking on the sand, the pale clouds hovering above the horizon. A breeze danced through the tall dune grass and ruffled the untrimmed locks of his tawny brown hair. To his right the sun was setting.

He recalled a sunset he and Jenny had watched from the Mall. The sky behind the Washington Monument had turned the color of burnished gold, with streaks of coral and sapphire and amethyst, like some jeweler’s stunning confection. He’d been holding Jenny’s hand, her slender fingers woven through his, the hot, humid air fluttering along the hemline of her loose-fitting cotton dress and her long hair pulled up off her neck in a slowly unraveling braid.

“It’s so beautiful,” she’d whispered, watching as the monument darkened into an imposing silhouette in the waning dusk light. “There’s so much beauty in this world, Luke. Don’t ever let it get away from you.”

He remembered thinking that the most beautiful thing in the world was Jenny.

And she’d gotten away.