Hey, look!" my cousin John exclaimed.
The two of us were standing on the sidewalk in front of Olsen's Variety Store, a place that sold everything from milk to magazines, baseball cards to soap. "If you need it, we have it," was Mr. Olsen's slogan, and it was true. It was a sunny autumn day, and all along the busy street the leaves were falling in the breeze.
John was excited by what he'd seen in the store window - a huge fishbowl filled with multicolored marbles, like a sudden cloudburst of undersea coral, beneath a sign that read: Want to win all these marbles? Guess the number. Contest rules inside.
"Let's find out," I said excitedly.
I like marbles - you never know when they'll come in handy - but more than that was the challenge of a contest, especially one as unusual as this might turn out to be.
"It's simple," Mr. Olsen told us from his usual seat behind the counter. He gave us a friendly smile, showing off his moustache. "Do what the sign says: Write the number and your name on a piece of paper and give it to me by Saturday, the contest deadline. Only one guess per customer. Okay?"
It sure was - what could be easier?
"How come you're doing this, Mr. Olsen?" I asked as more curious kids came into the store to find out what was what, among them John's little brother, Jimmy.
"That's simple, too," Mr. Olsen told me. "For fun."
Riding home on our skateboards, John and I tried to come up with a plan that would give us an edge over the other contestants.
"Why not just guess?" John wanted to know. "If either of us wins, we can divide the prize. That way we have two chances."
I shook my head. "I'll split it with you, but there has to be a better way than just guessing."
John agreed. "Think," he said.
We thought - and came up with a sure-fire winner. If we could find a fishbowl approximately the same size and fill it with marbles, then we could take an accurate count and still have two guesses.
There were only two items missing: a bowl and marbles.
"Where will we get them?" John wondered.
"Let's check your basement," I suggested. "Then mine. There's bound to be something we can use."
I was right. Down in John's basement, in a rumpled box behind the furnace, was a plastic container that looked about the size of Mr. Olsen's fishbowl. Someone had scratched "5 gallons" in red crayon on the outside.
"Right!" I exclaimed. "Things like fishbowls come in exact sizes like quarts or gallons."
"Or liters," John the mathematician put in.
I frowned at him and said, "I'm guessing gallons - five."
Finding a bowl was easy, but what about marbles?
"No way," John said. "There're too many."
I had to admit he was right. Container in hand, we went upstairs to his bedroom and sat on the floor to think. Weird music came through the wall - lots of voices singing very loud. I asked John what it was.
"Jimmy," he told me. "He's into opera."
"How annoying," I said.
"No worse than watching him eat with his mouth open," John admitted.
Suddenly I had an idea.
"Wait!" I exclaimed. "We don't need five gallons of marbles. We only need a quart. Four quarts to a gallon. We fill up a quart and multiply by, er...."
"Twenty," John said excitedly.
"Right. Got any marbles?"
He did, and he dug around in his dresser until he came up with a small bagful. Then we went over to my house, where I was pretty sure I could come up with the rest.
In the kitchen, we each had a glass of milk, emptying what was left inside the quart carton, rinsed it out, then filled it with marbles, right to the top - 120 in all.
"Let's see," John said. "Multiply 120 times 20."
The final total was 2,400!
"So many!" we both shouted together.
Imagine winning 2,400 marbles!
The next day we gave Mr. Olsen our slips of paper. Mine said exactly 2,400. John's said 2,420, just in case.
"Good luck," the storekeeper said to us. "Lots of entries, I'd say 55 or 60 in all. Even little Jimmy."
John made a face and said, "What does he know?"
Saturday afternoon we and a whole lot of other neighborhood kids crowded inside Olsen's Variety to watch the official marble count. It took a while for Mr. Olsen to do the counting, while his wife made a list of all the guesses, tacking the cardboard list to the wall. Only one number was higher than ours -2,500, surely too many.
Or was it? At 2,400 there were more than a few handfuls of marbles left in the bottom of the fishbowl. John and I shook our heads at each other. We'd been so sure of our calculations.
Mr. Olsen stopped counting at 2,495. Whoever had guessed 2,500 was the lucky winner. Of course you know who it was - Jimmy.
Afterward, we told Mr. Olsen what we'd done.
He laughed heartily. "Great thinking, boys," he told us. "Except you made one mistake. It was liters, not gallons."
Liters - can you believe that!
"How did you do it?" John asked his brother on the way home to get his wagon in order to help carry all of his winnings.
"You knew it was liters, didn't you?" I said.
Jimmy gave us a toothy grin.
"What's liters?" he said. "I just guessed."