READ A SAMPLE


EXPECT THE UNEXPECTED

Over 80 Short Stories

by

John A. Broussard


TABLE OF CONTENTS

 

  1. DIANA IN THE GROVES
  2. WHAT A GAS!
  3. CHECKMATE
  4. THE MISSING SHIPMENT
  5. THE WHITE MOUNTAIN
  6. DEAD AND ALIVE
  7. A FAMILY MATTER
  8. A MARRIAGE OF CONVENIENCE
  9. A PARTIAL PLATE
  10. A PLACE IN PARADISE
  11. ACTS OF TERROR
  12. AOMORI SAMURAI—A LEGEND
  13. BEATING THE SYSTEM
  14. CHICKEN STOCK FOR THE SOUL
  15. CONNECTING LINE
  16. CONTINGENCY PLAN
  17. CONTROLLING THE BOARD
  18. DOG DAYS
  19. DOWNSIZING—CHINESE STYLE
  20. THE FINAL SOLUTION
  21. FINALS
  22. GOOD NEIGHBORS
  23. GRUNT-GRUNT
  24. HI J
  25. IN FLAGRANTE
  26. IT DOES NO GOOD TO RUN
  27. JOYLAND
  28. LAST CHANCE GAS
  29. LAST STOP BEFORE FAYETTEVILLE
  30. LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION!
  31. MANA—A LEGEND
  32. MS. CHIPS
  33. MURPHY'S CORNER
  34. NAVY REGS
  35. PERFECTING A MURDER
  36. NEIGHBORS
  37. ONE WISH
  38. PI
  39. PICKING THE POCKETS
  40. RACING DAY
  41. ROADBLOCK
  42. SEVEN-TOED PETE
  43. SPECIAL ASSIGNMENT
  44. STOLEN IDENTITY
  45. STUYVESANT PARK
  46. SWAMI
  47. THE BANK EXAMINER
  48. THE BOY NEXT DOOR
  49. THE CHEST
  50. THE DESHREDDER
  51. THE GRIEF COUNSELOR
  52. THE MAN FROM HAUSLABJOCH
  53. THE MOTEL GUEST
  54. THE NEOPHYTE
  55. THE PLAGIARIST
  56. THE PUBLIC HAS A RIGHT TO KNOW
  57. THE REMATCH
  58. THE REVELATION
  59. THE ROAD TO HILO
  60. THE ROLLS
  61. THE SCIENTIFIC METHOD
  62. THE SCRAMBLER
  63. THE SHADOW CABINET
  64. THE SILVER BALLOON
  65. THE SQUARE WATERMELON
  66. THE STRANGER
  67. THE SURPRISE PARTY
  68. THE SURVIVOR
  69. THE TAPE
  70. THE THREAT
  71. THE TOREADOR FRESCO
  72. THE TURNING POINT
  73. TRANSMISSION BEYOND INSTANT
  74. WUNDERKINDER
  75. YOU ARE WHAT YOU EAT
  76. YOU CAN'T STOP PROGRESS
  77. A WOMAN WAITING
  78. BREACH OF CONTRACT
  79. BRIGHTON BANK
  80. CHANGING TIMES
  81. FAULTY EVIDENCE
  82. THE SEARCH FOR A MATE
  83. MISSED DIAGNOSIS
  84. OFF WITH THE NEW
  85. UNRECOGNITION
  86. LONE WOLF
  87. LAST CALL
  88. NEAR DEATH, WITH A  VENGEANCE


 

DIANA IN THE GROVES

 

I'd never really appreciated what the term “willowy” meant until the moment when I saw her standing there in the doorway of my so-called office. I did know for sure she'd just stepped out of a double-page Victoria's Secret ad in Vanity Fair Magazine.

It had been near the end of a rough week, on the last day of counseling, at the beginning of an impossible quarter. A new aluminum plant had started up nearby the previous month, and the small Washington State town was now flooded with blue-collar workers clamoring to have their offspring educated. The elementary grades bore the brunt of the influx, but Milltown Junior College, where I'd been teaching for ten years, was feeling the pressure too.

One more counselee to go, and then I could call it a day. I might even have time to review my notes for what I was really hired for—to teach psychology. With virtually all the classes loaded to the gunwales, the prospect of advising even one more student was mind-boggling. I'd just finished telling the penultimate one how important French was to his future, since I had hopes of cramming him into the last seat of Mme. Robittaille's class. No sooner had I succeeded in convincing him, then I discovered the last seat had just been filled by another student. So, with similar assurances, I stuffed him into a German class instead.

To make matters worse, I was still battling the office's ambience. Some twenty teachers occupied the warehouse-like facility, separated only by six-foot sheets of thin plywood and a token door to each eight-by-eight space. The one phone at the reception desk seemed to be stuck in a constant ringing mode, and conversations from as far as three cubicles away could be distinctly heard. I closed my eyes and prayed the last of the counselees had decided to go to work at Wal-Mart instead of crowding into Millltown JC.

A gentle rap on the doorjamb interrupted my optimistic daydream.

Not only did she have a knockout figure—all six feet of it—but her flawless complexion, long blonde hair and incredibly lovely face told me she must have taken a wrong turn somewhere about three miles out of town. I was sure she was about to ask me for directions to the nearest exit off campus. Why else would she be standing there in the doorway of my squalid office space? Only her softly voiced question, “Dr. Cornwall?” convinced me she had found the right person, but it simply intensified the mystery. I nodded.

“I have a three o'clock appointment with you for counseling,” she explained.

I considered struggling to my feet, but would very likely have knocked over one of the stacks of books on my desk had I tried to do so. In looking back, I probably also wanted to keep her from noticing my own height barely topped five-seven—if I stood up really straight. Actually, I didn't have to be concerned about her seeing anything of my short stature, since her gaze was fixed somewhere off to my right, at least an arm's length away. I motioned her to the only other chair crammed into my stall. She folded herself gracefully into it, revealed two nicely shaped legs, and refocused her eyes to something about four inches above my own eyes, somewhere on the top of my head. I became acutely conscious of the rapidly growing bald spot in approximately that location.

I cleared my throat and asked stupid question number one. “What courses do you want to take?” Stupid, because: a) the majority of incoming students had no idea what they wanted to take, b) those who did know were usually woefully unsuited for whatever they had in mind—such as a creative writing course when they had barely made it through high school English—and c) virtually nothing was now available anyway.

“I'm not sure what I have to take, but I want to be a teacher.”

Good God, I thought. You were born to be a model, would make a million a year by just standing there, and you want to be a teacher—when you won't even be able to look your students in the eye? I don't think my sigh was audible.  But at least my last counseling job of the quarter was going to be an easy one. Prospective teachers had to take a speech course. Declared fair game by the administration, with no limits on enrollment, speech classes by now were probably auditorium size, but I could still pack in another student. I had a fleeting image of myself as a Tokyo subway-train pusher while doing so.

I tore a registration form off the pad and started to fill in line one with “Speech 100.” Her look must have shifted to the pad. Her reaction convinced me she had extraordinary skill at reading upside-down handwriting, since I had problems reading mine right-side up. “I can't take speech.” The way she said it brought my head up sharply. She was terrified.  There was absolutely no question about it.

Even so, her panic level wasn't sufficiently high for her to risk a look at me. This time my sigh was audible, as the day's exasperation peaked. This sylph was no different from the other students I'd had to deal with. “Look! You can't get a degree in education without taking speech. There's absolutely no way around it.”

Her soft voice dropped to a whisper. I had to lean forward to hear her, and was suddenly overwhelmed by a strange fragrance. No expert on women's perfumes, I nevertheless thought I could identify one or two common ones. But this one was so subtle, so elusive. Could it be no perfume at all, just a clean human-female odor?

I barely heard her. “I know. I know. But couldn't I take it next quarter? Or next year? Maybe I could start with a math class. That's what I want to teach.”

Her chosen field brought me back to harsh reality. I was absolutely certain she had just barely made it through high school—if she had made it through at all. Millltown Junior College's entry standards allow anyone reaching age eighteen to register—high school diploma or no. “Selective retention” is our motto. And even then we're overly-retentive and not particularly selective. What a way to end the day! I rummaged through the rubble on my desk to find the readouts on my counselees. The last sheet in the thick package had Diana Halstead's name written across the top in bold face.

A moment's glance at the document brought my head up again. She was still focused on the general vicinity of my bald spot, which made conversation disconcerting, but she was listening. My voice must have mirrored my disbelief. “You had a four-point-0 in high school.” She nodded, and I could have sworn there was a trace of a smile on the same face, which a moment before had expressed nothing but terror at the thought of a speech class.

I was more than a little impressed. It was no Mickey Mouse high school she'd graduated from. Marysvale was a small community, but was nationally known for the quality of its educational system. “You must have been valedictorian.”

I could see she valued her school performance, and justly so, but her smile disappeared. She shook her head. “The principal wanted me to, but I didn't want to.” Her tone was as positive now as it must have been when she had originally turned down the offer.

I skipped down to her last high school semester, and there it was. An 'A' in the school's calculus honors class.

In a way, it simplified things. Advanced Calculus undoubtedly had plenty of openings, especially with Hyman Weisgartner teaching it. Hyman was something else again. He'd come aboard a couple of years before. I'd seen him, shortly after he joined the faculty, sitting by himself at a table in the lunchroom, so I thought I'd show some collegiate friendliness by joining him. I sat down and introduced myself. While I can't swear I'm reporting his first words verbatim, they did go something like, “Let n stand for the cube root of any imaginary number.”  Since I had struggled to get a 'C' in my mandatory college-stat class, there's not much point in trying to describe my end of the conversation. Actually, none was necessary on my part. Hyman carried the entire burden of it—zero of which I understood.

Needless to say, I never joined him at lunch again. Nor did any of the other faculty. But I'm certain the absence of eating companions never bothered Hyman, who spent the time writing on napkins, staring at the wall, absently scarfing down whatever happened to be on the day's menu and forgetting to go to class until one of his students showed up to remind him of his scholarly duties.

What kind of a mix would result from Diana Halstead sitting in Hyman Weisgartner's class?  A year before, I wouldn't have even considered putting her there, since I'd heard he had no patience with students. A few discussions with some of his better students quickly disabused me of the notion. Hyman didn't suffer fools gladly, but he had almost unbelievable endurance when it came to teaching someone whom he was convinced really wanted to learn.

I informed her I was putting her in his class, then wondered how he would react to a student who refused to look at him. She interrupted before I could fill in the line on the form.

“He isn't one of those teachers who wants students to go up to the blackboard and do problems is he?”

I chuckled at the thought.  “He'd probably break your arm if you so much as picked up a piece of chalk. He wants the blackboard all to himself. But you'll be expected to keep up with him, which won't be easy. He gives out grades like they're gold pieces. But I guarantee you'll know more about math if you make it through his course than you would from the same class at the U.”

She seemed to be thinking it over. It's always hard to read unspoken thoughts, especially if the non-speaker won't look you in the eye. “I'll do my best,” she said, finally.

The next choice was easy. Economics. Boring, but virtually a guaranteed 'A' for someone of her caliber. Dustin Carli was even more boring than his subject, and the word had long ago gotten around—which more than explained why his class still had several openings.

She agreed, perhaps because I simply didn't comment on it either way—though I also think she was beginning to sense my desperation. Her reaction to my next choice reinforced my hunch. “You have to take a Physical Education class, you know. They're the only mandatory courses here.”

The shapely shoulders rose slightly in acquiescence. I decided if she was going to concentrate on my bald spot, I was justified in fixing on an incredibly graceful neck emerging from a white blouse.

Thinking of her height, I ventured, “Volleyball?” I couldn't quite picture her as a spiking specialist, but her response reassured me.

She nodded, shifted her glance to the bookshelves behind me, and answered, “I'm not much of a server, but I do pretty well at the net.”

One more course to go, and really only one possibility. This wasn't going to be easy. The junior college wasn't allowed to have education courses on its curriculum, since those were reserved for the state's teachers' colleges, so I could only fall back on what I'd originally suggested. “Look! You're going to have to take speech sooner or later. Why not do it this quarter and get it over with?”

“I can't. I just can't.”

Actually, the one possibility had two variations. One of the two was definitely out. Celia Compton, who happened to occupy the cubicle next to mine, was the self-appointed censor of faculty behavior, with special emphasis on ferreting out any hanky panky between faculty and students. Professor Compton was absolutely convinced every male faculty member on campus lusted after every female student.

But what concerned me at the moment was the fact her specialty in her chosen field was the totally unnecessary humiliation she inflicted on her hapless students. She had even been known to mock a student with a speech defect. No way was I about to throw this lamb to a lioness.

Chester Lockley was something else again. Completely laid back. Handing out grades like they were chewing gum. Devoted to the creed of minimal teaching. I'd encountered him one day outside of the building which housed his class. He was smoking and looking bored. “I thought you had a class,” I commented. 

“I do, but they're giving speeches. I just can't stand them.”

“Ideal.” I decided. And, besides everything else, Chet was a notorious womanizer. I knew he'd turn handstands at the first sight of Diana, and would undoubtedly reward her for her mere presence in his class. I was determined to put her in it, and was equally determined to brief him ahead of time about this paragon. Eased into it, I had no doubt she could definitely give a speech. Besides, someone with her looks could mouth inanities and end up being cheered—at least by the male students.

The litany returned, as I started to fill in line four. “I can't. I just can't.”

I decided to combine fatherly strictness with the friendliest of reassurances. “If you want to be a teacher, you have to take speech. That's all there is to it. Besides, Dr. Lockley is very understanding (what an understatement!) and will give you all the special help you need.”

For a fleeting instant I thought those pleading eyes would meet mine, but they didn't. Her white skin seemed to fade even more. “How big is the class?”

Oof! Would it do any good to lie?  It was in the auditorium. Two hundred students? Maybe three hundred—or even more—if they crowded in extra chairs and, knowing the administration, they probably had.

In for a penny, in for a pound! “You just have to tell yourself the number of people doesn't matter.”

As I said earlier, it's hard to deduce a person's thoughts under the best of circumstances. When they refuse to look at you, it's well nigh impossible. But I think her expression indicated I'd lost a lot of points with what I'd hoped had been a comforting remark.

The same dizzying fragrance filled the air as she leaned over to sign the registration sheet above my signature. I caught a glimpse of two gentle curves rising below the base of the slender neck. I managed to recover enough to focus on her handwriting. Hers was a sharp contrast to my illegible scribble, as graceful as the figure which then rose from the chair in front of me. She thanked me, though I could hear the reservations. As she left, my one regret was there wasn't a greater distance to the door so I could savor the sensuous departure I was sure she was totally unaware of.

I managed to catch Lockley before he left campus. He was skeptical of my description, but quite willing to give special attention and TLC to an overwhelmingly shy coed.

There was no need to prepare the economics instructor, who spent most of his time with his back to the class, drawing archaic supply and demand curves on the board, while the students boned up for their next physics test. I passed on Weisgartner, too. If Diana showed even a smidgen of competence in his class, Hyman would be pleased and would help her. If she didn't, then tough! Sooner or later we have to learn to sink or swim.

My head was still swimming with thoughts of Diana Halstead when I got home. But with a wife who was insanely jealous, I wasn't about to let any of those thoughts escape into words. Fantasies are difficult to brush aside, however, and Katherine must have wondered about my remarkable ardor that evening.

But it wasn't as though I planned on doing anything but play the role of the model professor on campus.  Sexual harassment charges had never been made at Millltown J. C., in spite of the devotion and diligence of Celia Compton—though there was at least one affair I was aware of involving a member of the faculty and a student. I wasn't about to take any chances, even if Celia hadn't been my next door neighbor. Besides, I was only too conscious of the height difference between Diana and me, to say nothing of the fact my beautiful counselee probably didn't have the faintest notion about either my appearance or my interest.

***

It was less than a week into classes, while I was desperately trying to run down an article in Psychology Today without knowing either title or author, and with only a hazy notion about an appropriate key word, when I sensed someone pulling up a chair next to mine at one of the library computers. It was her!

She was staring at the screen as she announced, out of a clear blue sky, “I'm going to withdraw from speech class. I just have to.”

For the briefest of moments I thought I might have made the mistake of throwing this lamb to a wolf, but it turned out a lascivious professor was not at all the problem. She didn't wait for me to ask why she insisted on dropping the class.

“There must be over four hundred students in class.” Fear mixed with something akin to accusation sounded in her voice. “If I have to stand up in front of them, I'll die. I know I'll die.”

The gruff father figure instantly emerged. “No you won't. You're going to be a teacher, remember? When you get up there, think of me telling you that.” (What corn!) I could only envision myself looking down from the Seattle Space Needle where the Washington State Psychological Society had had its last reception. Me, who couldn't stand to look out of a second story window. I wouldn't have been reassured then by mere thoughts, however edifying. I changed the subject.

“How's the economics class?”

Though our shoulders weren't actually touching, I could feel her relaxing. I caught her smiling while she watched the screen scrolling in front of her.” I can read.”

I looked puzzled at the remark, but I was fairly certain about what she meant. What she said next confirmed my suspicion. “I'm five pages ahead of Professor Carli. All he does is read from the book.”

I grinned. “Learned to spike yet?”

There was an answering grin for the monitor's benefit, a headshake for mine. “No, but I do stop a lot of them from coming over the net.”

“How about math?”

There was no question but the soft voice now became tinged with awe. “Professor Weisgartner is the most intelligent man I've ever met.”

I pushed down the resentment and resisted telling her he didn't even have a master's degree. In fact, I wasn't sure he'd graduated from college. I couldn't picture Hyman ever sitting patiently through any course not directly involved with numbers. He had never gone beyond being an instructor, and since academia put so much emphasis on degrees—meaningless as those were—he never would go any higher … and wouldn't be the least concerned.

She went on. “There won't be any exam until mid-quarter, but I think I'm following his lectures.”

I wondered if she was actually looking him in the eye while he lectured. I doubted it and certainly hoped not.

As the weeks went by, Diana would occasionally drop by the office to fill me in on her progress. Each time, she seemed a bit more self-assured, but she was always apologetic, always eyeing the wall behind me or the bald spot—whose increasing extent I'd finally resigned myself to—always leaving much too soon.

It had been near the beginning of the quarter when I ran into her speech teacher. Chet didn't wait for me to broach the subject. “Where in hell did she come from, and how did we fall heir to her?”

I laughed. “The answer to your first question is Marysvale High School, and if you'd get off your duff and check her records, you'll really be in for a surprise. The answer to the second question is she turned down a scholarship to the U because she thought she'd better start college in stages, with a small one first. So you can imagine what she must have thought when she walked into your class and saw the size of the audience.”

Chet nodded his head vigorously. “She's right on the verge of a panic attack. I finally got her up in front of the class, just to read a paragraph out of a book. I usually do with the really shy students. She managed, though I was afraid she was going to faint.” He looked thoughtful. “I would have had to catch her if she had.”

The thought passed. “She held the book right up in front of her face the whole time. At first I thought she was near-sighted, but the reason for it was so she could be sure not to catch a glimpse of anyone looking at her.”

“How do you think she's going to do?”

“Demosthenes, no. But by the end of the quarter she'll be giving a full-fledged speech. And I guarantee thunderous applause when she's finished.”

Mid-quarter was approaching, and I'd run into her several times. Milltown J.C.'s campus isn't exactly huge. I do have to admit the meetings weren't always accidental, though. After all, you can walk down an aisle in the library stacks, supposedly engrossed in a book, and just “happen” to run into someone you might have noticed in the neighboring aisle.

And once or twice she actually said hello to me first in the hallways. How she recognized me is hard to say, since she seemed to be now keeping her gaze at knee level. It reminded me of the eighteenth century nobleman who was so shy he recognized his footmen only by the calves of their legs. Since I lacked exposed hose, I discarded the possibility as a likely explanation for her spotting me.

These occasional encounters were brief, and I had mixed feelings about them. It was certainly pleasant to talk to her, but the difference in heights did bother me. Fortunately, as long as we were standing, I could see she'd shifted her gaze to the far distance and wasn't really examining my thinning head of hair.

Then mid-quarter came, and it happened!

My office space was more chaotic than ever. Blue exam books were stacked precariously on the edge of my jam-packed desk, and I was busily scratching away comments, telling myself how, in many cases, I was wasting my time. Essay exams were always especially discouraging.

As usual, the door was wide open when I looked up to see Diana wearing the same kind of white blouse she'd had on when she'd first entered my office. Today, the blouse was accompanied by a short plaid skirt, split down the side and held together with a jumbo-sized gold safety pin. There was no knocking this time. Not even a gentle rap. She stepped right in, reached back and closed the door. I was about to protest but was given no opportunity to do so.

“I have something important to tell you,” she said, her voice much louder than usual. At least, I think it was. Somehow, it seemed the entire office had suddenly grown silent. There were no conversations to be heard. Even the compulsive phone was silent. I suddenly had the horrifying feeling “Comstock” Compton's watchful eye would appear at any moment over the partition separating our offices.

Oblivious to the world around her, Diana pulled the chair up close to me. Her knees were actually touching mine. I could see her face was aflame, could almost feel the heat from it. She leaned to within inches of my face. Abruptly and frighteningly she made eye contact with me.

The fragrance of her skin was unmistakable. The sensuous warmth of her breath pressed against my cheek. She leaned even closer. I froze. The words came out in a soft, almost caressing whisper.

“I got an 'A' on Professor Weisgartner's mid-quarter exam.”

END OF SAMPLE





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