An Odd Little Man

Clack-clack-clack went the train, and tap-tap-tap went Bob's foot, each to its own rhythmic beat. Then the tapping stopped as Bob further immersed himself in his Idiot's Guide to French book. He peered down at it through thick glasses, his lips moving silently. One large hand poised to turn the page with the pinky held daintily in the air. Suddenly Bob sniffed. He rubbed his nose frantically, rubbed his protruding stomach, and returned his right hand to its original position, ready to turn the page.

A few minutes later, and still on the same page, Bob began moaning quietly. Perhaps he was moaning in French, but it was difficult to tell. Finally he turned the page, paused a moment, and pulled the book up within inches of his face. His snake eyes squinted and his pockmarked face screwed in concentration. His upper lip curled. He reached up to scratch his balding head and started grinding his teeth. Then he dropped his book back down to chest level.

A man was making his way down the aisle to the club car when the train lurched and he stumbled near Bob's seat. Bob looked up for the first time in an hour.

"Argh, matey," Bob growled. "The sea be choppy today!"

A woman across the aisle tittered. Bob gave a wide satisfied smile. Looking around, he noticed a long-forgotten lunch tray on a seat next to a young woman. "May I take that to the trash for you, miss?" he asked.

She handed him the tray. He curtsied and sashayed down the aisle, leaving behind a whiff of Irish Spring soap.

Returning to his seat, he placed the French book in his bag and pulled out A Concise Encyclopedia of Mathematics. The other passengers regarded him with a quizzical air, but Bob never noticed. The sky outside grew dark, and the teenage girl next to him rolled herself into a ball and lay her head on his shoulder. Bob merely immersed himself in the mathematics of group theory.

He adjusted his glasses followed by his hat, which perched jauntily on his head. As if completing an elaborate ritual, he pulled on his short ponytail, tucked back runaway wisps of wiry hair, sniffed, rubbed his nose, and then his stomach again. His knit shirt was untucked and starting to look rumpled, but that only made it match his dirty and rumpled khaki pants. As he crossed his legs, mismatched socks came into view. Once upon a time someone may have traced the words "Wash Me" in the red dust coating his shoes, but by now it was hard to tell.

Bob's slick-soled shoe began tapping again, keeping pace with an unknown beat. It halted with the train, and Bob grabbed a nearby tube of wrapping paper and gently blew into it, creating a low tone. "My didgeridoo," he explained to the bewildered crowd. One by one the passengers filed off the train, leaving Bob behind.