The Miraculous Marvel of Lightning Eyes
It came with a money back guarantee: If beams of light did not flash from my eyes at will, my 50 cents would be returned, no questions asked. I put two quarters in an envelope, and waited the promised eight weeks to receive The Miraculous Marvel of Lightning Eyes.
Scattered among the pages of the comic books I read in my youth were advertisements that offered elixirs of hope and sweet dreams of the exceptional, affordably monetized and a simple mail order away. Secret pamphlets offered shortcuts that accelerated potential, offering a life where envy and ineptitude were transformed into prowess and mastery. A life as wide-shouldered and as confident as Charles Atlas was just an isometric exercise away.
For the cost of a week’s worth of allowance, curios promised to reward the unexamined life with intellectual adventure, hobbies would enhance one’s personality and social interactions, and proficiency in para-professional skill sets would acquaint mediocrity with astounding results. I scrutinized the details of each ad for the euphoric spell of empowerment they inspired. These readerly moments interspersed throughout the superhero action of my comics were my childhood narcotic.
The possibilities were intoxicating. I was promised a course that would develop in seven days the skills necessary for a successful career as a draftsman, locksmith or musician. I could change my physique into fear-inspiring muscle by checking boxes that indicated the areas in which I was most in need of developing, such as Iron-Hard Stomach Muscles, Tireless Legs, or More Magnetic Personality. I could start a stamp collection of cancelled international postage, have my poems set to music, or learn how to hypnotize others.
My perfect Christmas morning lay in the full-page spread that displayed the many toys available according to the number of boxes of all-occasion cards I sold to my neighbors and friends. I weighed seriously the prospect of employment with the Junior Sales League of America, believing as claimed, that the beautifully designed cards were guaranteed to sell themselves. What material longing I experienced as a twelve-year-old was colorfully illustrated, and I could experience the exquisite bliss of playing with my new archery set, opening my new switchblade comb, or tapping out a distress code on my new Ranger Rick Walkie-Talkies, as long as I was willing to beat the pavement and ring a few doorbells.
There was also the bizarre. I could purchase twenty-five live seahorses for only two dollars and 49 cents, which included one pregnant male seahorse. I could also order imported hunting birds of prey, which had been adequately quarantined and were perfectly suitable for a new hobby in falconry, a pastime that I was not aware of any kid in my neighborhood having. Special shipping, for these predators as well as for the seahorses, was never addressed. If I could not wait for the follicular advancements of puberty, I could order adhesive sideburns and a mustache made of modocrylic material, matched perfectly in color by sending in a sample of my hair.
I was always drawn to the courses that promised mastery in the martial arts. While brute strength and muscularity were apparent in my comic book heroes, I found I was drawn to the ancient wisdom and self-control that was acquired through Karate. I knew intuitively that knowledge of the tiger claw, iron palm or poison finger would triumph over muscular arms, and while the muscle-bound he-man is feared, the Karate master is admired and respected, as the advertisements claimed.
I was surprised when the secret of The Miraculous Marvel of Lightning Eyes arrived in a small, flat envelope, where no potencies or mysterious gases or secret torches could fit. Inside the envelope was a small slip of paper that instructed the reader to take two narrow strips of aluminum foil and place them carefully on top of the eyelashes. The reader was then to go outside on a sunny day and blink his eyes to the astonishment his friends.
I followed the instructions. Facing the sun, I called my mother outside. I strained my eyes wide open in order to keep the lightning hidden.
“What is it now?” my mother asked, stepping out into the backyard.
“Stand still and behold,” I said, and spread my arms out to my side and quickly blinked my eyes into the glare of the afternoon sun.
“Oh Dear God!” My mother gasped and clenched her bathrobe in her fists.
Like lightning, the thrill of the trick was over in a flash. The real magic existed in the two months of shipping time, when the mysterious power was full in its possibility. The stoked imagination anticipated 100 times over the astonishment of eye-socketed lightning, and each dreamed-of performance was poised and precise—an unrehearsed perfection in which reality had not yet dulled the shine of the actual.
The appeal inherent in the comic book ads was not based on youthful gullibility, but a promised agency to conjure a self-image in the likeness of our potential. This was the transformative act, if only imagined. This was the real performance, as miraculous and marvelous as it gets.
Philip Arnold‘s essays have appeared in North Dakota Quarterly, Atticus Review, and apt, where his piece, “Stereoscopic Paris,” was a notable selection in the 2017 Best American Essays anthology. He is the author of the poetry collection The Natural History of a Blade (Dos Madres Press 2019), and is the recipient of an Individual Excellence Award for writing from the Ohio Arts Council.