He walked into the bookstore and was immediately held fast by a vision on the discount table immediately inside the presumptuously conflated oak and glass doors. He looked around, as if confirming that Alan Thicke was not making jokes at his expense, and that the dreadful combination of Dave Coulier and Bob Saget was not blurting amusing cartoon noises at the film of his impending, humorous setup and inevitable takedown.
He reached down and picked up two copies from the bargain table, still not believing his luck.
His original task abandoned, his glee uncontainable, he made his wending way up to the front counter. He dared not look further into the store, for fear that another impulse purchase would ruin the joke which had haunted his mind like an earworm since his fourth grade teacher had insisted that illogical puzzles were good for critical thinking, or lateral thinking, or some other kind of thinking, and not just a way for her to feel superior to a nine-year-old. He fairly giggled as he approached. He dug in his pocket and found that he even had exact change. The moment was so sweet, his teeth began to feel grimy.
He slid up to the counter and dropped the two copies of the public domain novel onto the scanner.
"You know this's'a same book?" asked the dead-eyed clerk.
"I do," he ejected perversely.
" 'K," his sparring partner barely managed.
"Do you know," he began, suddenly realizing he had no way of breaching the subject.
The response was an impenetrably blank stare.
"Did you know," he tried again, "that with this receipt, I would be able to tell you what book I purchased, without the books here?"
"Yeah. It's on the receipt," said the employee. "I can print you a gift receipt."
"Ah, I see. What I mean to say is, even without the name of the book, I could tell you what it was, just by the receipt."
The stare thickened. "Like a gift receipt?"
"Ah, no. Let me try again. With just the prices, I could still tell you the title I bought."
"Nah, this is part of a series. We got more of them over by the table by the door. I think there's A Christmas Carol or something. You want me to get somebody to show you the table?"
"No. I have seen the table, clearly. I have selected these two items from it. But, you see, these two items in particular are especially represented by the prices."
"Oh." The stare thickened again, the suggestion of interest at the bargain table now evacuated from the clerk's visage.
"Let me demonstrate. What have I selected today?"
"Um. It says something about Autism?"
"No. It is Jane Austin."
"The title is Sense and Sensibility. And what is the price for each copy?"
"Um. A buck twenty?"
"No, I believe if you check more closely, you will see that this particular title is on sale."
"Oh. Yeah. I got to get a manager to void this out. Hang on."
He gritted his teeth. For an interminable minute, they stood, staring dumbly across the cash register, as the clerk beckoned vaguely at another, similarly dead-eyed, woman in a green vest. She came over.
"I put this in wrong. Can you void it?"
"Yeah." She stood, staring at the register. She walked over and entered a rapid string of numbers. The register allowed a flatulent bing to escape. "You're gonna have to start a new transaction."
As the manager ambled back to her silent post, he turned again to his victim who was yet again ringing the two, identical books into the register.
"So, you see, then, what was the price of each copy?"
"It says it's ninety cents."
"Yes!" Triumph at last! He felt like the Osiris of battle-scarred shoguns, ready again to face the challenge. "So, if I were to buy two?"
"Right. There are two of them here. These are the same book."
"They are. And, you see, by buying two, at this price, I have..." He held out the last word, waiting for a glimmer.
"Yeah. There's two of them."
"On the receipt, it would read..." He trailed off again, hoping against hope for a shift in thought.
"Um, says here, Janaustsens. I dunno what that is. I guess it's an inventory code or something. I can ask my manager-" He interrupted the clerk.
"But even if it only had the price, I would have cents, and cents, you see? And the total, then?" He paused. "Cents and cents-"
"I believe there may be some error-"
"Nope. Computer says one dollar and ninety four cents."
"Oh. I suppose taxes are included."
"Yeah, I guess."
"But the subtotal?" He felt despair creep into his bones.
"I guess I could print you a gift receipt. I'd have to get a manager."
He tried a desperate, last tack, surfacing for the third time. "I only have a dollar bill, three quarters and a nickel."
"You could just buy one." The clerk seemed almost hopeful at the prospect, or perhaps simply at the possibility of removing this puzzling customer from his bailiwick.
"You know what? I've read it." He left the money and the two paperbacks on the counter and slunk out.