The Common Man
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by Mack Reynolds
Category: Science Fiction
Description: It would, of course, take a trio of Ivory Tower scientists to conceive of tracking down that statistical entity, the Common Man, and testing out a serum of invisibility on him. And only the Ivory Tower type would get everything so wrong! Edited by John W. Campbell, Jr. for ANALOG.
eBook Publisher: Wildside Press, 1963 USA
eBookwise Release Date: November 2007
6 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [72 KB]
Reading time: 42-59 min.
Frederick Braun, M.D., Ph.D., various other Ds, pushed his slightly crooked horn-rims back on his nose and looked up at the two-story wooden house. There was a small lawn before it, moderately cared for, and one tree. There was the usual porch furniture, and the house was going to need painting in another six months or so, but not quite yet. There was a three-year-old hover car parked at the curb of a make that anywhere else in the world but America would have been thought ostentatious in view of the seeming economic status of the householder.
Frederick Braun looked down at the paper in his hand, then up at the house again. He said to his two companions, "By Caesar, I will admit it is the most average-looking dwelling I have ever seen."
Patricia O'Gara said impatiently, "Well, do we or don't we?" Her hair should have been in a pony tail, or bouncing on her shoulders, or at least in the new Etruscan revival style, not drawn back in its efficient bun.
Ross Wooley was unhappy. He scratched his fingers back through his reddish crew cut. "This is going to sound silly."
Patricia said testily, "We've been through all that, Rossie, good heavens."
"Nothing ventured, nothing..." Braun let the sentence dribble away as he stuffed the paper into a coat pocket, which had obviously been used as a waste receptacle for many a year, and led the way up the cement walk, his younger companions immediately behind.
He put his finger on the doorbell and cocked his head to one side. There was no sound from the depths of the house. Dr. Braun muttered, "Bell out of order."
"It would be," Ross chuckled sourly. "Remember? Average. Here, let me." He rapped briskly on the wooden door jamb. They stood for a moment then he knocked again, louder, saying almost as though hopefully, "Maybe there's nobody home."
"All right, all right, take it easy," a voice growled even as the door opened.
He was somewhere in his thirties, easygoing of face, brownish of hair, bluish of eye and moderately good-looking. His posture wasn't the best and he had a slight tummy but he was a goodish masculine specimen by Mid-Western standards. He stared out at them, defensive now that it was obvious they were strangers. Were they selling something, or in what other manner were they attempting to intrude on his well being? His eyes went from the older man's thin face, to the football hero heft of the younger, then to Patricia O'Gara. His eyes went up and down her figure and became approving in spite of the straight business suit she affected.
He said, "What could I do for you?"
"Mr. Crowley?" Ross said.
"I'm Ross Wooley and my friends are Patricia O'Gara and Dr. Frederick Braun. We'd like to talk to you."
"There's nobody sick here."
Patricia said impatiently, "Of course not. Dr. Braun isn't a practicing medical doctor. We are research biochemists."
"We're scientists," Ross told him, putting it on what he assumed was the man's level. "There's something on which you could help us."
Crowley took his eyes from the girl and scowled at Ross. "Me? Scientists? I'm just a country boy, I don't know anything about science." There was a grudging self-deprecation in his tone.
Patricia took over, a miracle smile overwhelming her air of briskness. "We'd appreciate the opportunity to discuss it with you."
Dr. Braun added the clincher. "And it might be remunerative."
Crowley opened the door wider. "Well, just so it don't cost me nothing." He stepped back for them. "Don't mind the place. Kind of mussed up. Fact is, the wife left me about a week ago and I haven't got around to getting somebody to come in and kind of clean things up."
He wasn't exaggerating. Patricia O'Gara had no pretensions to the housewife's art herself, but she sniffed when she saw the condition of the living room. There was a dirty shirt drooped over the sofa back and beside the chair which faced the TV set were half a dozen empty beer cans. The ashtrays hadn't been emptied for at least days and the floor had obviously not been swept since the domestic tragedy which had sent Mrs. Crowley packing.
Now that the three strangers were within his castle, Crowley's instincts for hospitality asserted themselves. He said, "Make yourself comfortable. Here, wait'll I get these things out of the way. Anybody like a drink? I got some beer in the box, or," he smirked at Patricia, "I got some port wine you might like, not this bellywash you buy by the gallon."
They declined the refreshments, it wasn't quite noon.
Crowley wrestled the chair which had been before the TV set around so that he could sit facing them, and then sat himself down. He didn't get this and his face showed it.
Frederick Braun came to the point. "Mr. Crowley," he said, "did it ever occur to you that somewhere amidst our nearly one hundred million American males there is the average man?"
Crowley looked at him.
Braun cleared his throat and with his thumb and forefinger pushed his glasses more firmly on the bridge of his nose. "I suppose that isn't exactly the technical way in which to put it."
Ross Wooley shifted his football shoulders and leaned forward earnestly. "No, Doctor, that's exactly the way to put it." He said to Crowley, very seriously, "We've done this most efficiently. We've gone through absolute piles of statistics. We've...."
"Done what?" Crowley all but wailed. "Take it easy, will you? What are you all talking about?"
Patricia said impatiently, "Mr. Crowley, you are the average American. The man on the street. The Common Man."
He frowned at her. "What'd'ya mean, common? I'm as good as anybody else."
"That's exactly what we mean," Ross said placatingly. "You are exactly as good as anybody else, Mr. Crowley. You're the average man."
"I don't know what the devil you're talking about. Pardon my language, Miss."
"Not at all," Patricia sighed. "Dr. Braun, why don't you take over? We seem to all be speaking at once."
The little doctor began to enumerate on his fingers. "The center of population has shifted to this vicinity, so the average American lives here in the Middle West. Population is also shifting from rural to urban, so the average man lives in a city of approximately this size. Determining average age, height, weight is simple with government data as complete as they are. Also racial background. You, Mr. Crowley, are predominately English, German and Irish, but have traces of two or three other nationalities."
Crowley was staring at him. "How in the devil did you know that?"
Ross said wearily, "We've gone to a lot of trouble."
Dr. Braun hustled on. "You've had the average amount of education, didn't quite finish high school. You make average wages working in a factory as a clerk. You spent some time in the army but never saw combat. You drink moderately, are married and have one child, which is average for your age. Your I.Q. is exactly average and you vote Democrat except occasionally when you switch over to Republican."
"Now wait a minute," Crowley protested. "You mean I'm the only man in this whole country that's like me? I mean, you mean I'm the average guy, right in the middle?"
Patricia O'Gara said impatiently. "You are the nearest thing to it, Mr. Crowley. Actually, possibly one of a hundred persons would have served our purpose."
"O.K.," Crowley interrupted, holding up a hand. "That gets us to the point. What's this here purpose? What's the big idea prying, like, into my affairs till you learned all this about me? And what's this stuff about me getting something out of it? Right now I'm between jobs."
The doctor pushed his battered horn-rims back on his nose with his forefinger. "Yes, of course," he said reasonably. "Now we get to the point. Mr. Crowley, how would you like to be invisible?"
The three of them looked at him. It seemed to be his turn.
Crowley got up and walked into the kitchen. He came back in a moment with an opened can of beer from which he was gulping even as he walked. He took the can away from his mouth and said carefully, "You mean like a ghost?"
"No, of course not," Braun said in irritation. "By Caesar, man, have you no imagination? Can't you see it was only a matter of time before someone, possibly working away on an entirely different subject of research, stumbled upon a practical method of achieving invisibility?"
"Now, wait a minute," Crowley said, his voice belligerent. "I'm only a country boy, maybe, without any egghead background, but I'm just as good as the next man and just as smart. I don't think I like your altitude."
"Attitude," Ross Wooley muttered unhappily. He shot a glance at Patricia O'Gara but she ignored him.
Patricia turned on the charm. Her face opened into smile and she said soothingly, "Don't misunderstand, Mr. Crowley. May I call you Don? I'm sure we're going to be associates. You see, Don, we need your assistance."
This was more like it. Crowley sat down again and finished the can of beer. "O.K., it won't hurt to listen. What's the pitch?"
The older man cleared his throat. "We'll cover it quickly so that we can get to the immediate practical aspects. Are you interested in biodynamics ... umah ... no, of course not. Let me see. Are you at all familiar with the laws pertaining to refraction of ... umah, no." He cleared his throat again, unhappily. "Have you ever seen a medusa, Mr. Crowley? The gelatinous umbrella-shaped free swimming form of marine invertebrate related to the coral polyp and the sea anemone?"
Ross Wooley scratched his crew cut and grimaced. "Jellyfish, Doctor, jellyfish. But I think the Portuguese Man-of-War might be a better example."
"Oh, jellyfish," Crowley said. "Sure, I've seen jellyfish. I got an aunt lives near Baltimore. We used to go down there and swim in Chesapeake Bay. Sting the devil out of you. What about it?"
Patricia leaned forward, still smiling graciously. "I really don't see a great deal of point going into theory, gentlemen." She looked at Ross and Dr. Braun, then back at Crowley. "Don, I think that what the doctor was leading up to was an attempt to describe in layman's language the theory of the process onto which we've stumbled. He was using the jellyfish as an example of a life form all but invisible. But I'm sure you aren't interested in technical terminology, are you? A good deal of gobbledygook, really, don't you think?"
"Yeah, that's what I say. Let's get to the point. You mean you think it's possible to make a guy invisible. Nobody could see him, eh?"
"It's not a matter of thinking," Ross said sourly. "We've done it."
Crowley stared at him. "Done it? You mean, you, personal? You got invisible?"
"Yes. All three of us. Once each."
"And you come back all right, eh? So anybody can see you again."
The doctor said reasonably, "Here we are, quite visible. The effect of the usual dosage lasts for approximately twelve hours."
They let him assimilate it for a few minutes. Some of the ramifications were coming home to him. Finally he got up and went into the back again for another can of beer. By this time Ross Wooley was wishing he would renew his offer, but the other had forgotten his duties as a host.
He took the can away from his mouth and said, "You want to make me invisible. You want me to, like, kind of experiment on." His eyes thinned. "Why pick me?"
The doctor said carefully, "Because you're the common man, the average man, Mr. Crowley. Before we release this development, we would like to have some idea of the scope of the effects."
The beer went down chuck-a-luck. Crowley put the can aside and licked his bottom lip, then rubbed it with a fingertip. He said slowly, "Now take it easy while I think about this." He blinked. "Why you could just walk into a bank and...."
The three were watching him, empty-faced.
"Exactly," Dr. Braun said.