An Ordinary Man

An Ordinary Man

Pippick was an ordinary man whose time was taken up by ordinary things. He lived in a single room in Mrs. Bridgewater’s boarding house in an ordinary town in the middle of Kansas. On weekday mornings, he went to his job at the only bank in town. At six o’clock each evening, he sat down to dinner with the three other lodgers at Mrs. Bridgewater’s boarding house.

During the evening meals, the topic of conversation revolved around the weather. Miss Pennyworth was a self-proclaimed expert on meteorology and went into great detail on how sunspots and the position of the moon have significant impacts on the Earth’s weather.

“As you all know, as the moon orbits the Earth, its gravitational force creates a tidal bulge. What you might not know, however, is that the Earth’s atmosphere is subject to the same tidal forces as the ocean and these tides affect atmospheric pressure, a well-known factor in weather systems,” Miss Pennyworth said one evening.

Pippick looked up from his plate and stared at Miss Pennyworth and then looked around the table to see if anyone else had heard what she’d said. Mrs. Bridgewater asked if anyone would like any more roast beef.

“No, thank you,” Miss Pennyworth said.

“Do you really believe that the moon’s gravitational force pulls the atmosphere along with it?” Pippick asked Miss Pennyworth.

“I would like some more,” Mr. Charlton said, holding out his plate.

“Yes, I would, too,” said Miss Levitt.

Miss Pennyworth looked at Pippick in disbelief. How could anyone doubt her knowledge?

“In the first place, the atmosphere is made up of gases, not water. Any increase in atmospheric pressure would be so small that it would be overwhelmed by other factors,” Pippick said.

“Such as what?” Miss Pennyworth asked, staring hard at Pippick.

“The sun, for one thing,” he said.

“I am not discounting the effect the sun plays on atmospheric pressure,” Miss Pennyworth said. “But the sun plays no significant part in tidal forces in the ocean or the atmosphere.”

Pippick continued to stare at Miss Pennyworth in astonishment, thinking what a stupid cow she was. He took a deep breath before he responded, “The sun, Miss Pennyworth, causes all our weather because it heats the earth unevenly. This contrast between hot parts and cold parts turns our atmosphere into a powerful machine, sucking and blowing, causing a lot of disruption of air pressure in the form of wind. And we all understand how evaporation works, don’t we?”

Miss Pennyworth looked around the table hoping to find an ally. She had never been spoken to in such a manner before. Surely, the others could see how rudely Pippick was behaving and would come to her defense. No one looked up from their plates, however, and Miss Pennyworth put down her fork and scooted away from the table. “Well, I have never,” she said as she walked away.

“She seemed perturbed,” Pippick remarked. “Did she seem perturbed to you?”

Ignoring the question, Mrs. Bridgewater asked if anyone would like more gravy. Pippick stared at her.

“I don’t understand all this fuss over the weather,” Miss Levitt said. “It’s all in the hands of God.”

Pippick looked up from his plate. “What does God have to do with it?” he asked.

“Why everything,” she said. “He is responsible for everything for by him were all things created that are in heaven and that are on earth.”

“So, you don’t believe in science?” Pippick asked.

“Of course, I believe in science,” she said. “Science is one way to explain God’s omnipotence.”

“Exactly how does science explain God’s omnipotence?”

“Science is a product of man, am I right?”

“Yes, I agree.”

“And man was created by God, right?” Miss Levitt asked.

“Well, that is a topic of debate,” Pippick said. “It is the great ontological question. Does God exist?”

“Can there be any doubt?” she asked. “His existence is self-evident.”

“How so?”

“Look around. Doesn’t the beauty of the Earth show that he exists?”

“Maybe the beauty of the earth is better explained by how we feel comfortable with it,” Pippick said.

“There can be no doubt that there exists a being which nothing greater can be conceived, and it exists both in the understanding and in reality,” Miss Levitt argued.

“Ahh, Anselm’s ontological argument,” Pippick replied.

“I don’t care what you want to call it, it is self-evident. It is a conceptual truth that there exists a being than which nothing greater can be imagined. I think we both can agree that God exists as an idea in the mind. But if he only exists in the mind, then we can imagine a being that exists both in the mind and in reality, therefore, a being that is greater than God. This is a contradiction because it is impossible to imagine a being greater than the greatest possible being. Therefore, God exists.”

“You make the argument well, Miss Levitt,” Pippick said. “I agree that God exists as an idea in the mind. The argument, however, that existence is a perfection is remarkably queer. It makes sense and is true to say that any child yet to be born would be a better person if that child is honest than if the child is not, but who would understand the saying that the child will be a better person if he or she exists than if he or she doesn’t exist? Or if God exists he is more perfect than if he does not exist? One might say that it would be better if God exists than if he didn’t, but that is a different matter.”

“You are missing the point,” Miss Levitt said. “The success of the argument doesn’t depend on our having a complete understanding of the concept any more than, say, we would have a complete understanding of the concept of a number than which none greater can be imagined. If such a number exists, it is beyond our ability to comprehend. We might as well say it is zero. But the argument would be made that there is an infinite number of numbers greater than zero, which leads us back to the problem of imagining the greatest possible number. The question is, does this number exist?

“The argument for the existence of God is a different matter since God does not depend on anything for coming into or continuing his existence. There is no lesser God any more than there is a greater God. The unlimited character of God entails that his existence is different than ours. While our existence depends on the existence of other beings, our parents, for instance, God’s existence does not depend on the existence of any other being. As a conceptual matter, God is an unlimited being. The existence of an unlimited being is either logically necessary or logically impossible. The existence of an unlimited being is not logically impossible. Therefore, the existence of God is logically necessary.”

“Bravo, Miss Levitt,” Pippick said. “A superlative argument. And I would have to agree that the existence of God is logically necessary. Where we might disagree, however, is that I’m not convinced that because it is logically necessary that God exists proves that God exists. I find it logically necessary that the sun will rise tomorrow morning, but this doesn’t guarantee that it is so. Logical necessity and reality are not always the same things.”

“But surely you don’t doubt that the sun will rise tomorrow?” Miss Levitt asked.

“I don’t doubt it but it is still a matter of faith,” Pippick said.

“But how many times have you seen it rise?” she asked. “Or better yet, have you ever seen it not rise?”

“Fortunately, no, I have never awakened to find that the sun did not rise. Of course, I have to search a little harder on cloudy days.”

“Precisely,” Miss Levitt said. “And on some days, the existence of God is a little more problematic than on other days. But to say that his existence is in question is absurd.”

Cogito, ergo sum,” Pippick began, “I think, therefore I am. This is your argument, right? If one is skeptical of existence, the fact that one thinks is in and of itself proof that one exists. This, of course, is Descartes’s first principle, and he goes on to say that the idea of God, or a supremely perfect being, was within him just as surely as the idea of any shape or number. The argument, however, can be made that it is equally absurd to say that he does exist since we have no empirical proof of his existence. It is one thing to imagine that I have a parrot in my room and quite a different thing to have a parrot in my room.”

“Oh my. Do you have a parrot in your room, Mr. Pippick?” Mrs. Bridgewater asked.

“No, Mrs. Bridgewater, I do not have a parrot in my room,” Pippick said.

Mr. Charlton looked up from his plate. “Who has a parrot in his room?”

“No one has a parrot in his room, Mr. Charlton. I was merely making a case that what one imagines is not the same as what is,” Pippick said.

“God defies empirical evidence because he is the cause of all things,” Miss Levitt argued. “He is the impetus, the igniter. When you see a candle burning, you don’t question that it was lit, whether by a match or a lighter or some other means of ignition. The flame tells you what you need to know. You don’t need to see the hand that lit the candle.”

“No, I don’t,” Pippick agreed. “I’d rather imagine that it was spontaneous combustion. Most likely, however, it was lighted by some source outside of itself. What else can I know about the flame of this candle? Like the world itself, I know that the flame exists and something about it is problematic, which I call its meaning. And I know that the meaning does not lie in it but outside of it. The flame might speak for itself, but how it came to be is another matter entirely.”

“Wouldn’t spontaneous combustion defy science, and, therefore, fall in the category of a miracle, which is God’s realm?”

“Not necessarily,” Pippick said. “It doesn’t defy science at all. It is only problematic in that it defies cause and effect. Why is it that man is the only living thing that needs to find a cause for every effect? A tree doesn’t need God to exist, it is too preoccupied with being a tree. Man can’t simply live by his instincts, he needs a remedy, a cause, an explanation. Man can’t simply enjoy the changing of the seasons, he needs to understand why the seasons change. And the solar system. Why do the planets align? Not to mention the Milky Way galaxy. From the tiniest particles to the vastness of space, man seeks to understand what is behind it. The big bang? But what or who caused this cosmic explosion? And so he comes to God.”

From the second-floor landing, Miss Pennyworth listened to the debate between Mr. Pippick and Miss Levitt. She could settle this debate with one sentence if she were still at the table. Maybe her departure was a bit hasty, but Mr. Pippick’s attitude was intolerable. She wouldn’t stand to be treated in such a rude manner.

Mrs. Bridgewater stared at Miss Levitt and Mr. Pippick, unable to grasp anything of what was being discussed. She was anxious, feeling the urge to ask if anyone needed anything else but was hesitant to interrupt their debate.

Unable to resist, Mrs. Bridgewater asked, looking over at Mr. Charlton, “More coffee anyone?”

Miss Levitt glanced from Mr. Pippick to Mrs. Bridgewater. Mr. Charlton, indifferent to everything that had been said before, quickly held up his cup.

On the landing above, upon hearing Mrs. Bridgewater ask if anyone wanted coffee, Miss Pennyworth hurried down the stairs and took up her place at the table.

“Yes, please, I would like some,” she said, looking over at Mr. Pippick. He returned her gaze, thinking how very strange this whole meal had been. Who are these people? And how did I end up here?

“I couldn’t help but overhear your discussion about the existence of God,” Miss Pennyworth said. “You are both circling the sun, so to speak. You are following the same orbit but on different planes. Isn’t it obvious that the existence of God is beyond our abilities to comprehend? God is subtle. He shows his existence in the smallest of ways, not by performing on some grand stage or with broad strokes across a blank canvas. We insist on seeing a performance, while God prefers to stay hidden in the wings. He is the artist who paints his masterpiece in solitude with no need for or interest in our admiration. God exists in every whisper of a butterfly’s wings.”

Mr. Pippick looked over at Miss Pennyworth with a new appreciation. Could this be the same woman who moments before insisted that all weather was tied to the orbit of the moon around the Earth?

“I am impressed, Miss Pennyworth,” Pippick said. “I think you have said it perfectly. If God exists, he doesn’t need our recognition. He will continue to paint with bold strokes without our adulation. We only need to look at his work in astonishment. Yes, that is the key. Whether God exists doesn’t matter. His work does.”

“I am taken aback by your sudden reversal of opinion,” Miss Levitt said to Mr. Pippick.

“But I haven’t changed my opinion at all, I’ve simply changed my point of view,” Mr. Pippick said.

“Whatever you want to call it, you certainly have backed away from your insistence on science and empirical evidence.”

“But it is in the science that I am most astonished.”

Miss Levitt and Miss Pennyworth both stared at Pippick, quizzical looks stealing across their faces. Then they turned to each other with satisfaction, nodding their heads.

Taking advantage of the respite, Mrs. Bridgewater hurried into the kitchen and brought back the coffee pot. Noticing that Mr. Charlton’s cup was still held out, Mrs. Bridgewater filled it first.

“Thank you,” he said without looking up from his plate.

“You are quite welcome,” she said, looking at the others sitting around the table. “Anyone else? Miss Pennyworth?”

“Just half a cup,” she said.

Mr. Pippick pushed away his plate and stood up. “I think I have had enough, thank you,” he said. “If you’ll excuse me, I think I’ll go for a short stroll before turning in.”

“Splendid idea,” Miss Pennyworth said. “Would you mind some company?”

“Not at all, I’d be delighted. Miss Levitt? Would you care to join us?”

Miss Levitt looked up at Pippick and then across at Miss Pennyworth. “I think I will,” she said. “Would you mind if I hurried upstairs to fetch a sweater?”

“Not at all,” Pippick said. “Take your time. It will give Miss Pennyworth time to finish her coffee.”

All during the walk, Miss Pennyworth impressed Pippick and Miss Levitt with her vast knowledge of plant life. At one point, Pippick couldn’t help but tell her how impressed he was with her encyclopedic knowledge of the local flora.

“It has always been a love of mine,” Miss Pennyworth said. “Ever since childhood, I have been fascinated by plant life, with all the different kinds of trees, flowers, and shrubs.”

“Well, I must say, your knowledge is impressive, and your descriptions have enlightened our little walk,” Pippick said.

Upon their return, Pippick and Miss Levitt continued their praise of Miss Pennyworth’s knowledge of the plant life they had encountered on their walk. Mrs. Bridgewater nodded in appreciation, relieved that their conversation no longer centered around God. Unable to disguise the pride she felt from the accolades, Miss Pennyworth smiled radiantly.

It had certainly been an exhilarating day and everyone decided to turn in early. After reading for about an hour, sleep overcame Pippick. Setting his book on the nightstand, he turned out the lamp and fell fast asleep.

In the morning, Pippick was roused from his deep slumber not by the clamor which usually awakened him, but rather by the absence of footsteps in the hall and the strong aroma of coffee drifting up the stairway from the kitchen below. Sitting on the edge of the bed, he picked up the small alarm clock from the nightstand. Eight-thirty. Puzzled, he hurried out of bed and changed out of his pajamas into pants and a shirt, sitting back down on the edge of the bed to put on his shoes, looking anxiously at his bedroom door. When his shoes were tied, he hurried to the door and out into the hall.

The three other doors that faced the hallway were closed. Across the hall was Mr. Charlton’s room. Knocking on the door, Pippick waited for Mr. Charlton’s response. None came. Funny, he thought, and slowly opened the door and looked inside. The room was empty. He proceeded to knock on each door and, after getting no response, looked inside. Having found all of the bedrooms empty, he walked to the bathroom at the end of the hallway. Only his toothbrush was in the holder, and when he opened the medicine cabinet above the sink, he found only his razor and shaving soap.

Something strange was going on. Pippick left the bathroom and hurried down the hallway and down the stairs. At the bottom of the stairs, he found the dining room empty, and peeking into the kitchen, he found it empty as well.

Trying to hold back his alarm, he asked himself if had he forgotten about some early appointment the others had planned to attend. No, he didn’t think so. Still looking for explanations, he went to the front door and looked outside. The streets were quiet. Looking across the street, everything seemed normal at the Huddleston’s. The same seemed true next door where Mr. and Mrs. Angston lived.

Walking down the sidewalk, he looked at the mailbox. “That can’t be right,” he said out loud. On the side of the mailbox in bold letters was his name: Mr. Sig Pippick. Where were the others’ names? Mrs. Bridgewater, Miss Pennyworth, Miss Levitt, Mr. Charlton? Opening the mailbox, he reached inside and pulled out three letters, all of them addressed to him. He bent down and looked inside. There was nothing else.

Straightening up, he looked across at the Angston’s house and hurried across the lawn to their front door. Knocking loudly, he was filled with a sense of relief when he heard footsteps inside. When Mr. Angston answered the door, he was struck by the look of dismay on Pippick’s face.

“Whatever is the matter?” Mr. Angston asked.

“The matter? Nothing. No, everything. They’re all gone,” Pippick stammered.

“Who is gone?” Mr. Angston asked.

“All of them,” Pippick said. “Mrs. Bridgewater, Miss Pennyworth, Miss Levitt, Mr. Charlton. All the inhabitants of Mrs. Bridgewater’s boarding house. They’ve all vanished.”

“You’d better come inside,” Mr. Angston said taking hold of Pippick’s arm and leading him to the kitchen table. “Here, sit down while I get you a cup of coffee.” Mr. Angston pulled out a chair and eased Pippick into it. After pouring a cup of coffee for Pippick, Mr. Angston sat down across from him.

“Has something happened? Did you fall and hit your head?” he asked Pippick.

“What do you mean? Nothing has happened to me, but all of the others are gone.”

“What others? You live alone, Sig. You’ve lived alone ever since your wife died over ten years ago,” Mr. Angston tried to explain to Pippick.

Pippick stared across at Mr. Angston, not comprehending what Mr. Angston was trying to say to him.

“I don’t have a wife. I’ve never been married. I live in Mrs. Bridgewater’s boarding house with the others. I’ve lived there for over twenty years.”

Mr. Angston looked at Pippick, trying to figure out what might have happened. Had Mr. Pippick had a stroke?

“Listen, Sig, you just sit here and drink your coffee while I call Dr. Asa. I won’t be a minute.”

Pippick watched as Mr. Angston left the kitchen. When he heard footsteps upstairs, he realized that it would only be a matter of minutes before Mrs. Angston would be down. As he listened to Mr. Angston trying to explain to Dr. Asa what was going on, he slipped out of the kitchen, looking up the stairs as he went by, and tiptoed to the front door. As quietly as he could, he eased open the front door, stepped outside, closed the door behind him, and hurried back across the lawn to his house. Once inside, he closed and locked the front door and rushed upstairs. The covers of his bed were thrown back, his pajamas tossed onto the chair in the corner.

It was a dream. It had to be. He needed only to get back into bed and wake up all over again. This time when he woke up, everything would be as it was when he had gone to bed the night before. Everyone would be there, sitting around the dining room table over coffee and eggs, chatting away as they did every morning. Sitting across from him, smiling through her bright eyes, Miss Levitt would be waiting. Pippick would look across at her and, with careful consideration, devise his next argument against the existence of God. All would be right with the world.


  1. Oh David, I loved this one immensely!! The argument between God and science, ages old was so well crafted and I could envision the dining room scene. The wake-up for Pittney took me by surprise. Our aloneness can do interesting things to our minds and our means of survival, our psyche always seeking reasoning,meaning and belonging.

  2. Thank you so much, Rita. I always appreciate and get so much from your comments. I agree, our solitude can do interesting things to our minds. In so many ways, we aren’t meant to be alone. Even before Pippick woke up to a different reality, he believed somehow that he was above everything else. His strong belief in science gave him the sense that he was superior to other people, and this belief, instead of giving him comfort, isolated him. Cold, hard science, if it isn’t mixed with a spiritual belief, can lead to despair. Thank you, Rita.

  3. David, What a warm and extraordinary story! I absolutely love the way you have woven its warmth and beauty into a compassionate glimpse of the courage of an ordinary man, coping in an unusual, (perhaps uninvited) yet practical way. Your writing touches my heart and soul deeply in so many lighthearted, and empathic ways as it weaves its’ telling through the shared comforts of an evening meal.
    This story is captivating in its portrayal of the playful give and take within a family of friends, heard through the mind and voice of Pippick, your quiet, yet feisty main character, who shares a home and a daily interactive gathering around the dining room table.
    I found myself seated at the table, listening to the delightful exchanges of both the nonsensical banter and the deep philosophical queries into the lofty topics of the great ontological question of proof for the existence of God! (An area of your expertise!)
    You share a fascinating look at your main character’s unique abilities to self-direct unexpected trajectories that bump into his orderly, habitual life throwing him off course but only temporarily. These trajectories seem to come while dreaming and interrupt his comfort by transposing his daytime awareness. And because he is aware of this, dealing with dementia is questionable to me.
    This beautiful story tugged at my heart with its deeply moving compassionate exploration into this lovely gentleman’s innate, imaginative strategies to live well with a life gone awry, allowing a softening in living carefully between the thorns of overwhelming loss.
    You have written this heartfelt story through such a warm and skillfully expressed journey, it concedes, and bows deeply to the mysteries of life and death, love and loss.. You brought me to tears in pondering expanded questions around self-love, and lost love, and our amazing ability to live well within the ever changing properties of our mind and its perceived “reality”. If our thoughts create our reality we must stay alert and mindful! Perhaps said metaphorically…we must go back to bed and dream again!
    How can we hold on to our daily conceived reality when so much of it seems to move wildly and uncontrollably like a rapid waterfall pouring out of seven billion liminal dreams and imaginations on this planet!! I think a better question for me to ask might be how do we create a reality of equality and work toward the highest good for all.
    Go back to bed and dream a new dream!
    Your story is so well-crafted it grabs our attention quickly and takes us along for a walk into the unknown!
    And crucially along the way, we find you weaving a hidden fragrant, potent elixir of love and madness (as Nietzsche speaks of), glowing softly beneath and behind the telling. I found this elixir to bring me a greater understanding and a confident hope in the extraordinary power of our free-will to allow, accept and fully live despite, and along with the permanence of the loss hidden within the madness that brings us face to face with the other side of love..that deeply felt and overwhelming, well hidden pain slammed hard and fast and lingering within our hearts forever….. Love and loss. We can’t love without losing. We can’t live without dying. How can we make the best of this?? Live our life to affirm our death?
    Dipping myself into this experience of loss in your story, brought me to tears, and a searing sadness, but also to the courage of our human hearts in coping with it all, as well as we can. Whether we partner our pain with our imaginative creations drawn out of our overwhelming grief, or we just plain out refuse to face it for awhile….we must eventually reach out tenderly and courageously to love again, even if it is only self-love that we can be comfortable with…. I’ve come to feel that this is the only way we may find the best path to partnering our pain, blending our loss into the powerful courage of our beating hearts in the best possible individual ways.
    (I wonder if dementia is just another one of the slow ways we lean into coping with deep loss?)

    I know my heart and soul have been touched deeply in so many ways through your story.
    I know many others will be deeply touched by your beautiful voice, as well.
    Thank you for sharing your heart throughout this mystery story of life and loss and the many ways we cope.
    And please keep writing! You are a brilliant storyteller, David!
    Much love, Virginia

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