Looking out the window reminded the man of a passage from Styron’s memoir about depression. The author had himself been paraphrasing Milton’s Paradise Lost: “No light, but rather darkness visible only served to show signs of woe.” Darkness visible; he was enamored with the paradox of the phrase. Perhaps, the wanton destruction was a product of “Revelations,” and soon Satan, laughing, would spread his wings. The man turned back to the machine and attempted to focus as certain death approached.
“In a few years, this band might become important to you. You might find yourself listening to their songs on repeat, committing the lyrics to memory, allowing them to soak into your soul.”
The kid looked at me with an expression, a combination of apathy and confusion, and again I understood I was asking too much of him.
“Let’s look at it another way.” I walked over to the whiteboard.
Sixth and Seventh grade English; we were reading a book, a young adult mystery which included time travel as a major component. Slowly, I’d gotten the majority of them to understand the principles and theories behind temporal displacement. Some got it right away, went back to their crude drawings and half-hearted attempts at listening to me. Others looked like their heads were about to explode, and I could almost hear the gears grinding, trying to make sense of theoretical physics. Eventually, I was able to use videos, film references, and simplified stick figure equations to generate enough understanding to satisfy the scope and sequence requirements of The State.
However, this student would take time. I’d have to dig deep, wear down his inability to comprehend until it broke, and the epiphany would hit him like Archimedes in the bathtub.
“Have you heard the song ‘Iron Man?’”
He immediately perked up.
“No, not the superhero.” I started writing on the board, “Not Tony Stark, a different Tony altogether.”
Though I couldn’t see it, I could sense his frustration. He was a good student, bright and capable, but attention disorders and learning disabilities had robbed him of focus.
“Tony Iommi was a sheet metal worker who also played guitar.” I started to draw a timeline on the board with erasable black marker. The squeaking accompaniment accented my tale.
“Iommi is seventeen, and it’s his last day on the job, and he…” I turn around to see the kid with his head on the desk.
I waited. We were locked in battle. Part of me wanted to excuse him, then say something pithy and condescending about his chances on next week’s test when he was halfway out the door. Instead I tried a different tactic.
“He lost his fingertips.”
Stirring, followed sweeping hair from the eyes.
“Last day on the job, sheet metal cutter took off these two.” I held up my hand and mimicked a blade removing the last quarter of middle and ring fingers.
I had him.
“So, here he is, a guitarist who’s now missing fingers.” I went back to the board and continued the timeline.
The machine, a prototype, whirred. The man adjusted the knobs, affixed wires, and pronged cables as if he were a telephone operator from the turn of the century. Outside, another deluge of destruction commenced, shattering the last remnants of order. Survivors of the initial onslaught had long since taken refuge underground, sealed within what would become their tombs. It was too late to stop whatever force was wreaking this havoc. Finally, the coordinates entered, the machine pulsed. He was unable to process the unraveling of time’s fabric and blacked out. Around him time slowed, then the orb containing him disappeared.
“At first, Iommi didn’t want to play the guitar.”
I rested my back against the board and watched the kid hold up his hand similar to how a metal enthusiast might give “The Devil Horns,” or Spiderman before he shoots the web, marveling at the imagined disfigurement. I continued my tale but spared him the recreation of a young Tony Iommi gripping his severed hand as salvos of blood erupted onto the metal cutter.
“He’s despondent, at a total loss. He’s a guitarist who can’t play anymore.”
“What if he just switched hands and played reverse.”
I smiled. “That’s a great question. I mean, he would have to relearn how to play.” The kid shrugged as if that wouldn’t have been that big of a deal.
“Either way, Iommi probably thought his music career was at an end,” I added.
The kid still wore a smirk on his face as he thought of something I hadn’t. Again, I empathized with how he must feel most of the time, intelligent and resourceful but maligned by improper wiring of his brain.
“So, Iommi is told about this other guitarist, Django Reinhardt, who also had problems with fingers on his fret hand and turned his weakness into a strength.”
I paused to allow him to process.
“At the brink of depression, the loss of fingers, everything, Iommi decides to stick with it. He melts down some plastic and molds them to fit his deformed fingers like extensions. Now, what do you think some problems might be with these new appendages?”
The student wiped hair from his face again and furrowed his brow. In a few years, the kid would become beset by the awkwardness which accompanies adolescence. He was free from this affliction for now, but girls wouldn’t be the center of attention until it was too late. I chose to avoid discussing this particular paradox.
“I don’t know.”
“Not on my watch.”
The kid groaned. All the students hated when I said that and forced them to think. On off days, when I just couldn’t deal anymore, I’d let them skate, but not today.
“Come on, imagine you have plastic finger moldings. Use the five senses.”
He squirmed in his seat and fixed me with a stare. Bribery attempts would invariably come in a few moments, but I coaxed it.
“Could he feel the strings?”
“Alright, so, one problem: he can’t feel the strings. Another, it’s still somewhat painful with the amount of tension, if the strings remain at the standard tuning. So, as a result, he tunes down, allowing for there to be more slack.
The man awoke. Sleep slowly released him from its anesthetic. He moistened his eyes, registering and processing. It took Herculean effort to stand, but he does so. Moving out of the orb, the man felt the ground crunch beneath his feet. Disoriented, he made his way toward the light. Underneath, his body has weight to it, like a juggernaut moving forward gaining strength. He emerged from out of an alleyway into history. The sky is the color blue remembered only in his dreams. The man breathed in the air; there’s no flavor, no tang. It is the past, and he’s made it through. The sheer joy at recognizing the possibility of a new day, an avoidance of the destruction of humanity, nearly derails him from his objective. Overcome with emotion, he sees people approaching down the sidewalk and moved in their direction, arms flailing above his head to flag them down. The man will speak of horrible annihilations, and they will listen. Word will spread to create an alternate timeline, one of harmony, so that the previous future will remain an untold nightmare locked away in his mind.
What do you think happens when he tunes the strings down?
“I don’t—.” He stopped himself. Paused. Thought. “It sounds lower.”
“What do you mean?”
“The sound, it’s lower, I don’t know.”
I let him have that one.
“It has a lower pitch. It sounds more ominous, more evil, like this.”
I had the track cued up. Hitting the space bar filled the room with the sound of Iommi’s guitar. The vibration of sound filled the air and emotion plucked like the Fender’s strings.
“When Ozzy Osbourne first heard this riff, he said it seemed like a big iron bloke walking around, and that became the title of the song. Of course, they changed it.”
We sat together listening to the verse and chorus, and I watched the transformation. Some primordial being within him awakening, culled from the depths of a deep slumber.
Cruel mocking faces. The man is met with laughter and disdain. His inability to string together coherent words only makes it worse. Taking refuge in an abandoned building, he’s overcome with enough emotional force to yell, but no sound emits. Finding a reflective surface, he looks at himself and sees what they see.
The kid moved in rhythm with the music now, as I watched him ingest the song.
“Here comes the best part.”
I waited for it, then sang along with the lyrics. “Now the time is here, for Ironman to spread fear, vengeance from the grave, kills the people he once saved.”
Going through the magnetic field transmogrified his genetic structure. The man was no longer human. Rendered mute by the process, he could only glare at his metallic appearance. Striking out, punching through a pillar of the building’s foundation, he explodes the granite and snaps the rebar as if it were strings wound too tight. Behind him, he can hear the crowd gather, building upon its force, gaining strength in numbers. He turns to face them and is met by fear and disgust. It isn’t until the first wave of onlookers has been put down, does The Iron Man realize what he’s done. But, by then, he no longer cares.
“Wait, I don’t get it.” He looked pained. I took a deep breath. I only had him for another few minutes before the study hall ended.
“Look, it’s the future, OK?” I pointed to the timeline on the board. “Here’s a man, dealing with the inevitable destruction of his world. All around him is horror as people are killed. He’s able to go back in time to warn everyone, but in doing so, becomes The Ironman. Unable to talk, to warn everyone, he lashes out when they make fun of him.”
I paused to collect myself. “He is the cause of the same destruction he’s seen in the future.”
I slowly traced the steps on the board and watched it register on his face. “It’s called a predestination paradox. We can’t say for certain which of these events happened first, so we accept they occur at the same time, which of course can’t happen.”
“I think I get it.” He eyed the door, hoping I’d grant him a reprieve.
I took a deep breath. “Go, have a good rest—”
He was out the door before I could finish my sentence. I took the eraser to the board, wiping my timeline from existence. Perhaps he would be more amenable tomorrow; somehow, I doubted it. I sat down at my desk.
He wouldn’t fully wrap his mind around it, not yet. Instead, as he got older, he’d find himself drawn to the music as solace, a panacea for the ways to deal with depression, anger, and anxiety, both internal and external. He would not be the usual candidate. No denim or leather would cloak his frame. Tattoos would not desecrate his skin, nor would he display any outward semblance of the cliched archetype.
Sometime around late adolescence, the music would begin to resonate. Dim memories would emerge, of an eclectic teacher who genuinely seemed to care. Something about time travel. A greatest hits album is purchased. Upon playing track one, the first feeling is one of surprise. Why had it taken him so long to seek this music? Soon, it’s all that he listens to, shunning anything without distortion or sonic boom.
He’ll listen to “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath,” and relish the moments when Ozzy shrills the words “The people who have crippled you, you want to see them burn,” fueling whatever needs to be released from deep within. After graduation, long nights of pontification, soaked through with booze, as enmity builds and releases. The song will be paused, then rewound. The phrase, wailed by Osbourne, so perfect in its encapsulation of his rage.
He’ll fear the moments, and the feelings of abandonment, knowing his eyes will tear up during the flute trills of “Solitude,” remembering the time he’d told an ex-girlfriend, as she packed up her belongings, “It must be nice not to feel so alone,” then breaking down in hysterics as she comforts him before leaving for the final time.
One night he will remember his teacher. He’ll begin to write a letter, but won’t quite know what to say. Somewhat ashamed, he wished he would have listened. He wasn’t able to back then. At that age, he had no perspective, no judgment. “Not on my watch.” He laughs, the inflection of his teacher’s voice clear in his head. He tries one last time knowing it’s futile, and instead scribbles something on the page, more of a reminder to himself and promises to come back to it later. He needs to tell his teacher that the words did in fact mean something.
I open the yellowed and creased paper in my hand, worn so much by now the fibers are smooth. The faded message from so long ago which was never sent: Don’t give up.
We’ll spend countless hours pondering concepts like fate and chance, whether things are ordained if anything has real purpose or value. At night, we’ll lay in bed and slowly unravel the linking of the events of our life, wondering about the choices we have made, perhaps waiting for the silence to be shattered by the crunching sound of metal on concrete as impending doom approaches, as darkness visible shows signs of woe, as Satan, laughing, spreads his wings.