Of All the Infinite Possibilities by Dana Diehl & Melissa Goodrich
In “Of All the Infinite Possibilities,” a story full of delightful humor and literal time travel, co-writers Dana Diehl and Melissa Goodrich give us a lesson in the art of narrative time, moving their plot and characters fluidly through a story told with a multitude of timelines. Included in their new collection out now from Gold Wake Press, The Classroom, this piece easily balances realism and magic.
Step back (and forward) in time with Mr. Achery, who laments, “I have never been a memorable person. I’m cautious. Meticulously normal. My boyfriend calls this my superpower, that I’m incredibly generic. My haircut. My clothes. The rules I do and don’t abide. The words I use in sentences.” As it turns out, he’s the coolest substitute teacher you’ve ever met. And please take a moment for the Author’s Note (in this case, the Authors’ Note) to learn about the collaborative writing process. —CRAFT
The topic is prehistoric humans and their place in the food chain.
It says so right in the substitute lesson plan. Highlighted in yellow and underlined. Well shoot, I think. I’d hoped I’d be teaching something I already knew a lot about. Like how many glasses of milk you shouldn’t drink in a row because you might die. Or Tiny House realty. Or how it’s almost as likely to die falling off a ladder as it is to die falling out of bed. Or the best place to get Boba tea in the city.
Turns out none of this is useful.
“You can call me Mr. Achery,” I say. “Achery rhymes with ‘bakery.’”
The students barely glance at me. Their eyes are caught on a prepositions poster, of squirrels going across, along, under, until, behind, below a tree. Their eyes are caught on the scrunchie of the girl next to them, on a pigeon sitting outside the window.
This is the challenge, to get students to take me seriously.
Because I am here to fill in the gaps.
Because I am temporary.
And they know it.
“You ever get that spooky feeling when something is flying overhead?” I ask, whooshing one hand above me, as per the Substitute Teacher Instructional Notes. Apparently, the Permanent Teacher is a bit of a dramatist.
The Permanent Teacher’s name is Mrs. Johansen. Rumor is her husband was hit by a car riding his bike to work, that he’s in the hospital getting his organs replaced. He is starting to recognize shapes, they say in the teacher’s lounge. They half-grin at me and hit the button on the one working Keurig machine.
I fumble with Mrs. Johansen’s notes, not sure what to say next. Mrs. Johansen has written clearly at the top of the notes: Engage the students. History has to feel real for them to get it.
“You ever have that feeling when the hairs on your back raise?” I say. “When your stomach drops like an anchor—do you know what I mean?”
My temporary fourth graders are polite enough to nod.
I watch their eyeballs for the gleam of engagement. I try not to notice the kid in the front row picking his nose, or the girl gnawing at her thumbnail. I try not to think about how stupid it is to ride your bike to work when the statistics are completely against it. I try not to think about how the average age of bicyclists killed in car crashes is like forty-five or something, how 88 percent of those killed are male. How you have a choice most of the time to do something safe or do something stupid.
I look at my fourth graders, some of whom are eating the erasers off their pencils, some of whom are already drowsy beneath their hoodies.
And I decide to do what’s stupid.
I ditch the Instructional Notes. I drop the whole huge stack of it into the recycling bin. This gets their attention. Backs straighten. They side-glance one another. I ask the class, “Has anyone ever traveled back in time?”
No one answers, but their eyes stick on me.
“Please stand up and push in your chairs,” I say, and they do.
Then I lead them outside to my time machine.
I don’t remember any of the substitute teachers from when I was a kid. I want to be different. I want to be memorable. I want to be the substitute teacher that kids write about in their college applications or who trends on YouTube because of the unique handshake he invents for each individual child. I have fantasies about one of my students reaching out to me twenty years from now and saying, “Mr. Achery, you’re the reason I became a neurosurgeon.” Or, “Mr. Achery, I didn’t think I’d ever amount to anything until I met you. Now, would you believe it, I’m in the process of discovering a cure for the common cold.”
Once, when I shared my teaching fantasies with my boyfriend, he suggested that maybe I got into teaching for the wrong reasons. He accused me of trying to be a Dead Poets Society teacher, and I took this as a cue to dress preppier: striped ties, starched shirt, blue sweater.
I have never been a memorable person. I’m cautious. Meticulously normal. My boyfriend calls this my superpower, that I’m incredibly generic. My haircut. My clothes. The rules I do and don’t abide. The words I use in sentences. He loves that predictability.
“So, you think I’m…boring?” I asked him once.
“You’re welcome to surprise me,” he said, smiling.
When I grew unhappy as an accountant, he wasn’t surprised. He wasn’t surprised when I looked into subbing, or when I traded in my car for the exact same model but several years newer. Wasn’t surprised I found comfort in the What Is a ______ Grader, Anyway? series I stumbled upon online, or the way I waited at the door at 8:00 p.m. because that’s when Amazon promised the books would be delivered by.
He was, however, surprised by the time machine.
He shook his head. “Wow, Greg. Seriously?”
That look—how he didn’t know what to make of me—made my heart palpitate. He helped me move the time machine into the garage. “I always thought a time machine would be heavier,” he said.
The time machine became a sort of joke in our house. Mostly my boyfriend forgot it was there, but every now and then he’d notice it in the corner of the garage and roll his eyes and ask, “How’s the past treating you?”
I laughed, but the jokes make me uncomfortable. I took to storing the time machine in the trunk of my car when I wasn’t using it.
What my boyfriend doesn’t realize is that it works. That I’ve stepped into our futures many times before. That in one possible future, I’ve seen us, necks looser and earlobes droopier, move to Texas and become ironic cattle ranchers. That I’ve felt how punishingly hot it is, hot enough to see mirages. That I know one day, in one future, I’ll leave him, my boyfriend on a lonesome hill, me on horseback.
He has no idea.
“Walk in a straight line. Don’t walk on the curb,” I warn my temporary students as we walk through the parking lot. I tell the front office that we’re going outside to examine rocks, which isn’t exactly a lie.
I’m ready to watch their faces for that change. That new register, when they see me as more than what I appear.
My time machine looks like one of those metal detectors you pose inside at the airport. It is collapsible. It has many knobs and buttons. I pull it from the trunk of the car and set it on the gravel of the parking lot. I spin one of the knobs to “Prehistory.”
I turn to my class. I can tell they’re curious, but they’re trying hard to hide it. “Today,” I say to them. “I’m shaking things up. Now when we go back in time, two things are very important. One, listen to my directions. And two,” here I smile at them, “have fun.”
One by one, we walk through my time machine, and zip, ping, blip: we’re ten thousand years ago.
When we exit we are not in a parking lot, but inside a wide-mouthed and low-ceilinged cave. I dip my head around the stalactites, turn to watch the students, the star-shapes in their eyes. Their hands on their cheeks Home Alone style.
“What the…?” a kid says.
I can’t stop grinning.
I am going to be the best temporary teacher they’ve ever had.
I kick away some rocks and debris and clear a space on the ground where my students can sit. I wipe down a cave wall with the end of my sleeve. Underneath the dust are images, and I think, What luck! What are the chances!? I’d planned on using the wall to scrawl terminology, but this is much better.
I act like I knew the cave drawings would be here. “These, class,” I say, “are examples of primary cave documents. Can you tell me what you see here?”
“It’s a picture of a woolly mammoth!” one kid shouts out, and I thank him but remind the class that they should raise their hands, because too much shouting might cause a rock fall in a cave like this.
“I see a bird. A big bird with talons,” offers the girl closest to me.
“Looks bigger than any bird I’ve ever seen,” says another student. He points to a little stick figure that I think must be a cave-person, underneath the drawing of the bird. “See! It must be HUGE!”
“Cave art can tell us a lot about the life of prehistoric societies,” I tell them. Remembering the topic of the day, I add, “What do these drawings tell you about a human’s place in the food chain?”
But none of the fourth graders want to talk about that. Instead, they are asking me questions I don’t know the answers to, like, “Are these paintings made from blood?” and, “How much blood? and, “Is it HUMAN?”
I am the teacher and I don’t like being wrong, so I guess, “Yes! Undoubtedly!” Then I lower my voice and lean into it. “These are blood drawings,” I say, “and it’s time to go scavenging. After cave art, the best way to learn about the food chain is by examining bones.”
“What kind of bones?” they want to know, and I say, “Any kind.”
I break them into teams, and they slink off in pairs to go roaming the cave.
I never took education courses, but I do frequent the Teacher Supply Store, where all the employees are cheery as glass about to break, lemonade smiles and voices like plush robes.
Once, a smiley woman in a dress dotted with limes found me in the geography aisle, and I got so nervous I bought three wipe-down posters of lions reading, and lions wearing lab goggles, and lions holding protractors in their teeth. But when I got home, I realized I had nowhere to put them, because I’m not a real teacher, I’m a substitute, something temporary. I have no walls or windows or floor.
My fourth graders come back with all sorts of things: bones and sticks and rocks carved into points. No one’s found a skull. But one girl, who introduces herself as Mollie, found a tooth. She holds it up proudly and bares her teeth for comparison. “How big is it?” she asks. “Is it bigger than mine?”
I tell Mollie she’ll get a prize when we’re back in class. Then I ask my students to gather back around. I say, “The light in the cave is turning orange, so it must be nearly what, class?”
None of them get when I am asking for.
“Sunset,” I say, alone.
I feel clammy. I feel like a clam. This is the first time I’ve brought anyone in the time machine with me, and I didn’t realize how much I’d been aching to share it until now.
I say, “Let’s venture out from the cave and explore. Let’s see what else we can gather about early humans. Remember, this is prehistory. Before history.” I wiggle my finger in the air for emphasis. “This is before we had the language to write stories down.” Before I’m halfway through my sentence, my fourth graders have vamoosed. They rush out the mouth of the cave into the twilight, the forest thick, buzzing, autumnal, the trees stretched large and clinging to their colors. I throw my neck back in wonderment. My voice is starting to tire. I wonder if I’ve fulfilled the state standards for history yet. I wonder if this is what it’s like—success.
My fourth graders are throwing themselves into piles of leaves, sneezing so hard they tumble backwards, wrestling their way up ancient tree trunks. I sneak back into the cave and start warming up the time machine, so we can get back to school in time for lunch, and when I return outside, there’s not a fourth grader to be seen.
What Is a Fourth Grader, Anyway? is Crayola-bright and pocket-sized and has on the cover a tiny cartoon of a child on a spring coil, launching himself up. Towards…enlightenment? I puzzled over the cover with my boyfriend, and he laughed at the chapter titles: “Girl Drama Begins,” “What to Do About the Bathroom,” “Sometimes Everything Goes Wrong,” “Writing Emails Is Like Making a Sandwich.”
This is what I reach for when my fourth graders disappear off the earth.
When the nerves in my body start to make me feel like my skin is unzipping.
I tell myself, they’re not disappeared off the earth.
I tell myself, Calm down, Greg. Take a chill pill. Take a Xanax.
I keep thinking the words liable, irresponsible, negligent, and they make a jail-door sound.
I walk through the trees. I don’t know many of my temporary students’ names, so I just call, “Fourth Graders!” I climb a short tree with low branches to try to find a better vantage point, but all I can see is more trees holding up the sky. It is wide and purple and orange and the biggest sky I’ve seen.
A large shadow passes overhead and the hairs on my neck stand up. I have that feeling like my stomach is an anvil.
I try breathing. I try to remember the YouTube tutorial on panic attacks, on grounding.
I think about the sound of my boyfriend sleeping, or a pile of folded sweaters, or room-temperature butter, or other things that calm me down.
I breathe deeply, thinking if I can get calm enough, things can go back to how they were. My students will be okay. I will be normal and boring and good.
The shadow above me has wings.
I’ve gone to the future dozens of times. Just quick looks. You’re not supposed to walk around inside your own future. According to the instructions that came in the box, you could catch a disease or mess things up. You can do the same things in the past, but the future feels more delicate because we just don’t know about it yet.
I’ve seen my boyfriend marry me.
Cheat on me.
Plant hydrangeas with me.
Fall off a ladder.
Drown in a lake.
Gallop as a cattle rancher.
Lavish himself in Tokyo.
Cry when it’s me in the lake, one time, drowning.
Every single time it’s different.
A couple days ago, my boyfriend announced over dinner that I was acting very weird. Had been acting weird for weeks. “You’ve been,” he paused, “unpredictable.”
I laughed. I told him I didn’t know what he meant. But once he was asleep, I slipped back out of the bed and into the garage, tinkering with the dials, looking into twenty, thirty, forty years from now.
To figure out which choices, which seemingly small decisions, would cause which futures.
By the time I process that the shadow is a bird, an enormous, mammoth eagle, it is too late to duck. Too late to climb back down the tree.
The eagle grasps me around my upper arms and lifts. The ground falls away. My right shoulder is bleeding, and every breath is pain. The eagle huffs and flies vertically like it is swimming.
We must be up miles. The forest below has changed from being individual trees to one single blob of green.
I realize we’re approaching something. A cliff-face. A cliff-face where a fall from such heights would be certain death.
The eagle unclenches me into a giant nest. I roll, scrape my knees. When I stop rolling, I try to get to my feet. I brace one hand against the puncture wound on my shoulder. My clip-on tie slips off. The nest is barbarous sticks and peat and grass, two large eagle’s eggs in the center. At first, there are no signs of my fourth graders. Then I spot Mollie, crouching behind one of the eggs. I’m relieved to see her, and then terrified. The eagle steps into the forefront of my vision. The eagle, making a ceiling over me. The eagle, opening his wings. The eagle, cocking his head at me, staring at me from the side. All these moments, I think, pulling them in like a collection. It’s weird how much can happen, and how slow it is, before I die.
I want to pick up a rock or something, but there isn’t a rock.
So I pick up what is in front of me.
I lift the eagle’s egg.
The eagle, she’s watching me.
She feels like a she now that I hold the egg.
Mollie crawls forward enough to touch my sock, to warn me, but the egg is already high in my arms. Whatever’s inside is almost completely formed. My fourth graders are all here. I can see them now, cowering around the outside of the nest, peeping over the rim. I try not to lose my strength, try to remember anything I can about yoga or bodybuilding or air. I breathe through the nose, out through the mouth.
“Eyes on me,” I roar. And I realize they are.
The eagle rears back and I spread myself out in an X. There is a man buried inside of me, underneath the meticulous outside, a prehistoric-me, an unruly me, full of muscle and instinct, and the havoc of listening to him, the havoc of his arms in my arms—
I thrust the egg.
I chuck it hard.
I conk that eagle right in the chest, and the egg bounces into the air, and I can see her heart lurch after it. The eagle dives downward off the mountain.
And we hastily make our escape.
It takes us two days to hike back down the mountain to the forest floor, clinging to the thickets, sleeping under trees. I stay up all night keeping watch and my students are well-behaved. I have only minor discipline problems. We eat grass and some acorns. We’re so hungry we all get a little loopy. I think my students are whispering about me behind my back, or maybe it’s just the murmuring of the leaves. One of the boy students goes missing for enough time to make me think the eagle’s gotten him, but then he comes back holding two dead mice in his fist. I don’t have the heart to tell him we haven’t invented fire yet.
We drink spring water clear as blue eyes. I don’t let them soak their toes for too long in case of unknown creatures lurking beneath the surface. I make them memorize the spelling of “hypothermia” and “pneumonia,” though I forget exactly what each of those words mean and what makes them different.
“Tomorrow, when we get back to class,” I say, planting the belief firmly in their brains, “we’ll have a spelling bee. And an illustration contest. And learn Roman numerals. I hope you’ve been paying attention,” I say.
If I pretend authority, if I pretend know-how, my fourth graders won’t notice that I don’t know.
I say, “You’ll use this the rest of your life.” I use great gestures, the jaunt of my elbow, my rusted-open eyes.
I shake my What Is a Fourth Grader, Anyway? booklet at them. The pages rustle loose.
We break for lunch, though we don’t have anything to eat. One boy, claiming to be a Boy Scout, tells us we can eat the inner bark of some pine trees. He scratches at the bark of an evergreen and uses a rock to splinter off some chunks of white wood.
“I can’t be sure of this species, though,” he says. “It’s possible it’s toxic.”
A few of the students are hungry enough to take a piece anyway. They chew at the bark like its gum and make faces but don’t spit it out.
We’re just about to continue on, when Mollie announces, “This looks familiar. I remember seeing these sorts of trees around the cave. Maybe that means we’re close.”
“Yes! Very astute, Mollie,” I exclaim. “You just earned yourself another prize!”
Overhead a shadow passes.
We all crouch low in the forest. We press our bodies against the earth. We wait. The shadow circles, circles, passes.
My students get to their feet before I do, and so for a few seconds that feel like a few minutes, I stay on my belly, watching them through the grass. They dust off their knees. They tuck their hair behind their ears. Then they keep walking. My fourth graders move as a herd, as a flock. They move in the same direction without speaking.
I think of one of the futures I saw through the time machine. The future where I leave him on a horse. How could I leave him on a horse? I kept wondering, obsessively. I needed to see what happened. So I went into our future again. I saw my boyfriend sitting alone on the front steps of a porch. Dark rimmed glasses, silver hair combed back, knees bony through his jeans. The land speckled with cattle and cacti. The sun low-slung, turning everything red. He was smiling, in a quiet, content sort of way I knew well. I longed to see myself emerge from the house, carrying two mugs of tea, or maybe cranberry juice. Whatever old people drank. I longed to see my silhouette on the horizon, myself old and on horseback, galloping back. But that me never emerged, and eventually I realized. I wasn’t coming back. My boyfriend was alone in this future, and he was happy.
At the time, this future filled me with fear. I returned through the time machine back to the garage, storming, baffled, furious at myself, furious at that smile, furious at all the god-knows-what that led us there.
But here, now, my body is dampening in prehistoric mud. I imagine letting my body sink further into the mud, letting my skin and muscle and fat enter the food chain, letting the earth fossilize whatever’s left.
I think of my boyfriend silver-haired and happy.
I think of my body in the desert, how I must have fallen off the horse on the way back to him, how I must have ended up bones. Why else would I have left him?
“Mr. Achery!” I hear a student call. “Look!”
I’ll get up in a moment. I can see it already: me following my students’ voices through the trees. The open, waiting mouth of the cave. My students’ hands on the time machine already, guessing at the knobs. But for now, I stay here, where I am.
DANA DIEHL is the author of Our Dreams Might Align (Splice UK, 2018) and the collaborative collection, The Classroom (Gold Wake Press, 2019). Her chapbook, TV Girls, won the 2017-2018 New Delta Review Chapbook prize, judged by Chen Chen. She earned her MFA in Fiction at Arizona State University. She lives in Tucson.
MELISSA GOODRICH is the author of the collaborative collection The Classroom (2019), the story collection Daughters of Monsters (2019), and the poetry chapbook IF YOU WHAT (2012). Her stories have appeared in American Short Fiction, The Kenyon Review Online, Passages North, PANK, and others. Find her at melissa-goodrich.com and tweeting @good_rib.