Fiction, Humor, Short Stories

Exhibitor’s Row

A hunched figure lugged two black bags down a spacious hallway. On his back was strapped another bag, which rose up and tapered on top of his head. A bungee cord hugged his belt and led to the handle of a trolley filled with furniture which trailed behind him.

“C’mon, Harold!” said a tall man in front, looking up from a tablet which glowed under his thin eyes. “You should have plenty of energy after that breakfast you wolfed down.”

“We did manage a discount due to the temperature of the potatoes,” added a second, shorter man with a double chin walking next to the first, his eyes gazing at his own tablet. “At least we didn’t break the bank over some ample helpings of mild hash.”

“Yes!” replied the first man, chuckling. “One tough victory to start the day, many more to come. But I do say, it’s easier to persuade a judge than a waitress at a café.”

“Quite,” said the second. “It’s the lack of hope in a waitress―the older ones, I mean. They don’t tend to put up with any negotiating. We got a bit of luck there with the young lady, I’ll admit.”

“I suppose,” said the first. “It must have been our charm that won through, eh?”

“Either that or the threatened subpoena!”

The first man chuckled and turned his head again. “We can’t keep up this jollity forever, Harold. Let’s go, there’s a booth to set up!”

Harold grunted and huffed and kept his legs moving.

The trio were headed toward a large sign at the end of the hallway with an arrow to the right. It read: “CRIMES AGAINST HUMANITY EXHIBITION HALL”. Those on the board of directors thought it was a clever title for the 6th annual conference for lawyers, defendants, prosecutors, victims, and any others interested in the affairs of an attorney’s office, the proceedings of a courtroom, and the persuasions of criminal justice.

Soon they were underneath the sign, and the two men leading the way turned swiftly right, eager to get to their destination. Harold, however, stopped in his tracks, allowing the trolley to continue and bump him in the rump.

A faint and mangled sound hummed from far down the hallway on the left. It was as if an orchestra of musicians were all playing their own tunes with no regard for the others, all while people chattered over the noise, with no regard for the musicians.

Harold tilted his head and gazed toward the cacophony of instruments and people.

“Hey! Harold! Come on, now, this booth won’t set up itself!”

The assistant obliged and trudged the weight of the booth behind the coat-tails of the two men.

Four more long hallways later, the trio reached the entrance of the exhibit hall. A guard at the door inspected their lanyards, all of which read “CAH: EXHIBITOR”, and admitted them into the hall.

Like all exhibit halls, the CAH one was split into rows and rows of compact boxes of space, creating a makeshift marketplace with narrow passages upon which purveyors could travel at their own discretion. The flashier the booth, the more likely someone might pause and take a look; and, as most exhibitors were those of law offices and private practices, their idea of flashy was something that resembled a quaint study or lounge, including such things as fake mahogany flooring, leather-backed chairs, and a picture of a yacht on a calm summer day.

“Here we are,” said the tall man with the thin eyes. “Good spot―middle of the hall.” Hanging from a curtain at the back of the booth was a sign that read “Strauss & Nagle”.

“And we don’t have to look at that snivelling lawyer Bardow and his fake teeth,” said the shorter man with the double chin.

“Those teeth!” laughed the tall man. “Poor Bardow couldn’t defend himself in the court or the ball field! If you remember, he had seats right on the 1st-base line when Sassersson came up to bat. And then―BAM―right at his face. Next thing you know, Bardow’s trying to prosecute the major-leaguer for a couple of broken incisors. The best part was the whistling sound he made whenever he tried to say ‘Sassersson’!”

“Ha, even Sassersson himself couldn’t keep from grinning through the whole thing. He was a good ball-player, that Sassersson.”

“Yes he was, and he earned the hearts of many a rival lawyer with his foul play.” With this note, the tall man directed his attention to Harold, who had placed the three bags on the ground, and was beginning to unload the furniture which was stacked on the trolley. “Ah, perfect,” said the tall man, taking a chair Harold had unloaded, and seating himself in the booth.

“Tired already, Strauss?” said the short man, also taking a chair and seating himself next to his partner.

“Just need to settle myself in before the day’s work. You’re much better with marketing and sales, Nagle. As we’ve always said―”

“―Nagle negotiates, Straus strikes,” finished the short man. “Though you’ve gotten better over the years. Why, remember at the beginning when you even forced Harold to greet prospects while you sat in the back typing away?”

“Not without my mistakes,” chuckled the tall man. “We’ve got our system in place, now, and it’s all for the better. Speaking of which, look at Harold, he’s moving faster than a jack-rabbit in the open field.”

Ever since Harold had heard the tremors from the adjacent convention, his mind had been moving at double speed. This translated into a surge of energy and eagerness to complete his task so that he may leave and start his new one.

The booth was set up in less than half an hour. It would have gone even quicker if Strauss and Nagle had decided to get up from their chairs (other than the time when the Persian rug was laid down) but they preferred to bark orders and reminisce about the trials that resulted from the connections made in the previous year’s convention. In the end, they were satisfied with the look of the booth, asserting that the muted brown rug and picture of a 787 taking off into the sunset were sure to set them apart from the crowd.

“Am I free to go?” asked Harold, glancing repeatedly at the exit.

“The exhibition hall doesn’t open until noon,” said Strauss. “And that’s not for another hour and a half. We don’t need you to go on the hunt quite yet.”

Harold shifted his eyes again and remained silent.

“Strauss, it’s the otherconvention,” said Nagle. “Remember how the poor fellow stopped like a deer in the headlights?”

“Of course!” said Strauss. “I nearly forgot. Excellent idea. But I don’t see yet why we need items from a bunch of music dealers. The pens they’re handing out are probably from their hotel.”

“It would be…” started Harold, rubbing his hands together with a mix of nervousness and avarice. “…It would be for me…and…for my family…maybe…”

“Ah, let him go,” said Nagle, nudging his partner in the side. “Remember the time he told us he played the kazoo in his middle school band?”

“It was the flute, sir,” said Harold.

“Both make a ruddy sound, don’t they!” quipped Strauss. “Okay, Harold, have fun raiding the caterwaulers. If you find a violin with my name on it, I’ll give you a bonus! Ha, that would be something, eh, Nagle?”

“The violin, or defending Harold for burglary?” grinned Nagle.

“Good call, good call!” laughed Strauss. “Harold in the witness stand! Oh, that would be something. Off you go, boy, have fun, and don’t forget this.” He tossed Harold an empty canvas bag from the convention.

Harold snatched it, nodded, and left the duo, both musing over the comical events that would compose a trial of their faithful assistant.

This was the third year that Harold had come with Strauss and Nagle, but it was the first he knew of another convention happening at the same time (the tattoo conventions of the first two years went unknown to most, as the board made sure that any foot traffic stayed well away from that “seedy” area).

Harold did indeed have a musical background. His father was a conductor, his mother taught tuba lessons, and his brother was properly known as “DJ Flippin’ Burgers”. Harold played the flute…poorly. But he still appreciated music, and working for Strauss and Nagle strengthened, how would you say, other parts of his character.

He strode down the hallway with purpose, following the humming noise. The noise grew louder and louder until the entrance to the exhibit hall was in sight. “FOR THE FUN OF MUSIC” read the large sign over the double doors.

He walked toward the doors and was about to enter before being stopped by one of the guards.

“Pass please?” said the rotund guard with a receding hairline.

Harold gulped slightly and shook his head. Of course! He didn’t have the right pass!

“This says you are an exhibitor for that lawyer convention,” said the guard, looking at Harold’s lanyard.

Harold turned his head and made eye contact. With a furrowed brow and a sniff he managed a stiff nod.

“I’m afraid I can’t let you in.”

“P―Please?…” muttered Harold. “I―I’m only an assistant, and―and I would really like to experience the―the joy…” With this statement he looked longingly through the door at the bustling exhibit hall. He stood there, his lower lip trembling, repeating the word “joy” as if he had never experienced it in all his life.

The guard raised his right hand to his chin and gave it a good rub. Moments passed, and as he watched the poor, whimpering gentleman in front of him, he began to feel that not letting him in would be the equivalent of drowning a puppy. After a moment or two he resigned his will, sighed, and gestured with his hand towards the door. “All right. You can go in. They usually charge for this, but you’re not going to any seminars, so here you go.” The guard then stuck on a “FFM – FIRST TIME ATTENDEE” sticker to the bottom of Harold’s lanyard. Before he could blink, Harold was inside.

Harold instantly exerted as much pomp and vigor that he could muster. He knew that his mission hinged on his ability to generate as little small talk as possible without making a commitment to a full-blown conversation. And what was his mission? To get the best possible free goodies from every exhibitor…without receiving or handing out a business card. A business card meant an unspoken agreement to carry such card in his wallet until that unspecified time until the owner of the card would in no reasonable way expect a phone call, at which point the card could be discarded. And Harold had a small, old wallet, which feared anything more than a license and a crisp one-dollar bill. Not only that, but he only had cards from Strauss and Nagle to hand out, and they didn’t want any petty instrumentalist calling and interrupting their day.

He was only a few steps in when a young woman came up to greet him from a booth on the end of a row. He had wandered just inside the booth’s zone, and now the trial began.

“Hello, how are you doing?” the woman asked, offering her best smile. She wasn’t ugly, but not particularly pretty, either. Just the sort of normal person yearning to deal out the deadly commitment cards.

“Um, fine,” Harold replied. He nimbly reached down and pocketed a handful of pens (which were indeed from the hotel), forcing his own smile to match the woman’s.

“So, have you heard of ‘Symply Cymbals’? We’re a leading designer of cymbals and cymbal accessories. You wanna come over here and give one a ring?”

Harold immediately grew uneasy, sensing the spider drawing him into its web. He was about to break away and escape, when he eyed a branded pile of drumsticks lying on a stool next to the array of cymbals mounted on display.

“Hm, well I guess one ring wouldn’t hurt,” he murmured, walking over and picking up his prize. He grinned, examining the stick while formulating an escape.

“Go ahead, give it a whack!” the woman chimed.

Harold lifted the stick and smashed down on the cymbal, which rang out a tremendous din.

On cue, Harold grabbed hold of his ears and began stumbling about, moaning about the noise that had nearly killed his eardrums. In his stumbling, he knocked over the stool of drumsticks, which fell and scattered its contents on the ground. Harold did not take the contact lightly, and dropped to the ground as well, still clutching his ears.

“Oh my, are you all right?” the woman asked, reaching down to help.

“I’m fine, I’m fine,” Harold replied, rising to his knees. “Quite a sound, ohhh…” Groaning, Harold pushed himself to his feet, grasping a few drumsticks in each hand as he rose. Before the woman could say anything more, he wobbled out of her booth and back into the crowded walkway between exhibitors. Within seconds he was lost in the crowd, at which point he stuffed his prizes inside the canvas bag that was draped over his shoulder.

“Mission one: complete,” he whispered with a smile of satisfaction.

Before Harold could bask in his recent glory, a voice affronted him to his left. It was a sprightly man, dressed in a coat and tie, sporting a slick black comb-over (though he wasn’t bald) and a carved-out goatee. His eyes were full of light, but Harold could sense deception deep inside him. It was quite familiar.

“Hello, there, young man, what are you looking for?” he asked with a bit too much excitement.

Harold wanted to say that he wasn’t young, he couldn’t stand flattery, and that all he wanted was the colorful mug that sat on the man’s desk. But instead he replied, “I’m not…sure.”

“Oh, well don’t let a little old accordion scare you, come on over here.” The man beckoned Harold forward to a monitor display that was bolted to the booth’s wall. “You see, the accordion is not just that party instrument everyone makes it out to be. It really is one of the most complex yet intuitive instruments on the market, and the amount of features that it provides to any level of musician is simply stunning.”

On the screen was a 3D model of the “Alphonse Asyncronistic Accordion,” the latest in the Alphonse lineup. Over the next few minutes, the man (most likely not Alphonse) droned about the “next-gen” and “absolutely sensational” aspects of the accordion, which rotated, flashed, and morphed on the screen as the man spoke.

Harold zoned out the garbage and kept sneaking glances at the colorful mug. The logo had a delightful shade of neon blue with a green accordion spitting out musical notes.

Time was ticking, and Harold knew he had to act. Cutting the man off, he muttered, “I’m…thirsty.”

The man gave him a quizzical look and noticed that Harold wasn’t carrying a cup of coffee like the rest of the victims that strayed his way. He did, however, have a pot on the ready. It was a rare Brazilian blend…distinct enough in smell to draw the curious and the caffeine addicted.

“I have just the thing, then,” the man said cheerfully, looking to liven up the dead fish which was his recent customer. Taking one of the colorful mugs, he filled it up halfway, then asked about adding any cream or sugar.

“Oh, let me do it,” Harold interjected.

He rushed over and grasped the mug out of the man’s hands. “I’m very particular,” Harold said, reaching for the half-and-half.

“Help yourself,” replied the man, trying to maintain his lovable disposition.

Harold obliged and began to pour out the liquid cream. Except nothing came out.

“Just turn the knob there at the top,” the man said.

“I’m trying, it won’t budge!” Harold replied, gripping the top of the silver container, simulating strain on his wrist.

“Here, let me,” the man offered, reaching over to help.

“No, I got it!” Harold cried, raising his voice in angst.

“Sir, just let me open that for you―”

“I said I got it!”

“―Sir, you’re turning it the wrong way, let me―”

“I’m sure just a little harder and―”

In the tug-of-war, the men’s arms collided, sending a splash of scalding coffee out of the mug, into the air, and all over the front of the man’s suit.

But it was Harold who let out a shriek. “My hand, my hand!” he squealed, shaking his right hand vigorously.

“Your hand, look at my suit―”

“Cold water, need cold water,” Harold repeated, still shaking his right hand, still clasping the mug in his left.

With this, Harold rushed back into the busy walkway, down and around a corner, and was out of sight.

Thus far, it was going very well.

For the next half hour, Harold stayed entrenched in the crowd, free from a direct confrontation from an exhibitor. He was a bit lucky with the first two finds of drumsticks and a mug. Many of the booths didn’t seem like they had anything at all, other than the obligatory pen or perhaps a small bottle of hand sanitizer. The next booth he visited needed to be specifically chosen based on its contents; he had heard details of a booth with a tantalizing contest, but that would have to be later. For the time being, maybe some guitar picks, or a conductor’s wand, or―


The man in question jumped in the air. The deep, rumbling voice had come through a loudspeaker or something of the sort. He looked around in a nervous panic.

“Harold, over here!” The man behind the voice waved his hand from a booth to Harold’s left.

Harold stepped over to the booth, the front of which was lined with a wall of bass amps.

The man behind the amps was holding a wireless microphone. Only his head was visible above the wall. He was smirking profusely underneath a pluming afro and thick-rimmed glasses.

“How do you know my name?” asked Harold, glancing to his left and right on top of the wall for anything free to grab.

“Your lanyard, man. I see you’re from the other convention. The name’s Phil.” He reached awkwardly over the wall to shake Harold’s hand.

“Yeah…” murmured Harold, letting his hand be squeezed before letting it back down to his side.

“So how do you like that sound, big guy? I bet you thought these amps could only handle a hundred watts. Not so! That was a full five hundredthat I blasted at you when I said your name.”

“That’s a lot of watts,” mumbled Harold.

“At ‘The Rampture’ we rent and sell all kinds of amps for shows, parties, and―um―corporate events,” continued Phil, catering to his clientele. “Lawyers like yourself gotta relax with some deep grooves, am I right?”

A drop of sweat materialized on Harold’s brow. This was turning into a genuine conversation. Genuine conversations turned into exchanges of business cards.

“I’m pretty new,” blurted Harold.

No…” mused Phil. “You sure? You look like you been doing it forever.”

Harold gulped. This guy was good. A master of small-talk. Soon he’d find out about Harold’s actual drudging position at the attorney’s office, his history of failure at the flute, his apparent need for an amp for his studio apartment…how could he turn the table in his favor?

Harold stared with his mouth agape.

Phil waited patiently for Harold to complete his thought.

Suddenly, inspiration struck the devious assistant. “I’m not interested in amps,” he stated. “Though three rows over, I saw a vendor of bass guitars who looked like they could really use one of your excellent devices to promote their wares. I’m sorry that I did not tell you straight away. Are you familiar with ‘Space Bass’?”

‘Space Bass’?” Phil exclaimed. “’Space Bass’ is interested?! Heck, I didn’t think I had a chance with them. They never replied to any of my emails.”

“As we lawyers say, ‘One word spoken well can strike harder than a thousand on paper,’” said Harold, doing his best to channel his inner Strauss.

“Well I’ll be,” said Phil. “’Space Bass’…that would be a deal, man…”

“We lawyers like to help people,” said Harold. “Let me take one of these amps over to them for a trial run. I’ll put in a good word for you, and you can stay at the booth to help any other interested folks walking by. I’m sure there are many.”

“Wow, you’re the best, Harold! I gotta change my view of you guys. Here, take this one on the right.” Phil shimmied the amp, about a foot all around, into Harold’s hands, along with the necessary cords (as even ‘Space Bass’ might not have the proper tools to make it run like a champ).

Harold took his bag from his shoulder, rearranged the items by putting the amp on the bottom with the other stuff on top, then draped it back over his shoulder. “More secure,” he said, blinking warmly at Phil. “A pleasure.” He shook Phil’s hand again (more vigorously this time), turned, and walked back into the crowd milling about.

Now it was going very, very well.

The problem Harold had anticipated at the beginning was that it would be difficult to visit all of the exhibits, considering many of them were in close proximity, and his escapades may become known or at least rumored about between exhibitors. His recent farce was his biggest yet, and he sensed that his time to leave was imminent. But there was one more booth he had to visit, the whispers of which he had heard as he had made his rounds.

There was a company that attended the conference every year, and every year had the same hackneyed contest: guess how many marbles in the jar to win the prize. The thing is, there was a catch: this was no game where the closest person to the total at the end of the day won. No. You either guessed it, or you didn’t, and that was that. And no one had ever guessed it.

But Harold had a plan. And his success had given him the confidence to execute it.

The exhibit for “Ukulele and You” was located in the very back corner of the room. The idea was that there would be less crowds and more room for the real people who cared about ukuleles. Since there weren’t that many people who cared, there were periods when no one was around.

Harold moseyed up to the booth at precisely one of those times. The rumors of the contest were true. He looked to his right: a busy conversation in the next exhibit about trumpet tonality; he looked behind him: the harmonica people had gone on a break; he looked ahead: an unsuspecting old man, standing silently in front of a wall that hung the trophy prize: a golden ukulele. In front of him was a large, glass jar, filled with colorful marbles.

“So, have you come to take a guess, or has the itch for ukuleles gotten to you, too?”

Harold secured the bulging canvas bag as tightly as he could on his shoulder. Then he leaned towards the glass jar with wide open eyes.

The old man mirrored him, moving in closer.

With a burst of unexpected energy, Harold grabbed the glass jar in both hands and smashed it down on the man’s head.

Before the man had collapsed on the floor, Harold snatched the ukulele off of the wall and turned on his heels out of the exhibitor’s hall.

Sprinting down the main corridor, he screamed, “I WON, I WON,” greeted by spontaneous cheers of folks who all knew about the fantastic prize.

Harold had not found the signed violin. But there was a good chance he would need the services of ones Strauss and Nagle.

Written by Joshua Hall

Josh enjoys writing stories, designing games, and hitting a fuzzy yellow ball with a racquet. He migrates between Philadelphia and Tampa, and is often seen hanging out with middle schoolers for the sake of youth ministry.

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