Who Hates Acapella by Eric Rasmussen
For most of a minute, the tenor splits his stare between his phone and the lake view framed by the minivan’s windshield. Then he sets the device in the cupholder. The other three members of the group wait in silence. Finally, from the back seat, the bass speaks.
“What’s it say?”
The tenor swallows. “It was all a joke.”
“That doesn’t make sense,” says the baritone from behind the steering wheel. “They sent the down payment. The money’s already in our accounts.”
“The groom hates acapella,” explains the tenor. “When he found out the best man hired us, he made the captain leave early.”
The van’s wheels rest on the line between the asphalt and the marina’s arterial dock. A hundred fifty yards away, just beyond the half-circle breakwater, a boat carrying a guy named Brad and all of Brad’s sport-coated friends putters into the dusk. Its hip-hop beat throbs across the bay, through the vehicle’s tires and into the legs of the four singers. From the other back seat of the minivan opposite the bass, the countertenor, who is the eldest member of the group, groans. The baritone grabs a balled-up napkin from the console, takes off his glasses, and dabs his eyes.
“It isn’t fair.” The tenor punches the dashboard. “This was our night. Our time. And now it’s gone because some jerk doesn’t like acapella? Who doesn’t like acapella?
“We’ll have another chance to perform,” says countertenor.
“No, we won’t,” the tenor replies. He points at the baritone. “You’re moving.” He points at the bass. “You’re having another baby.” He crumples into his seat. “Any of us might have an aneurysm any day.”
“What do you suggest?” asks the countertenor.
“We all showed up expecting to sing on a boat.” The tenor unbuckles his seat belt and opens the passenger door. “And tonight, that’s what we’re going to do.”
The tenor’s wingtips make a scraping noise on the wood pier, and by the time the other three men exit the van, he’s already taken a left at the first intersection. Laughter from the floating bachelor party echoes over the water, underscored by the squawking of seagulls. The tenor continues past the ski boats and the cabin cruisers to the grand vessels at the end. He steps to the edge next to a tri-deck yacht, then removes his jacket, cummerbund, and bow tie, which he hands to the baritone when the trio falls in line behind him.
“You want to sing on this thing?” The countertenor points at the multi-million-dollar watercraft. “That’s trespassing.”
“No trespassing.” The tenor turns, kneels, and lowers himself off the pier. “We just need a ride out to our original gig.” Floating underneath, hidden in the shadows, is a little inflatable dingy. His feet can’t quite reach, and when he pushes off and lands on the rubber floor of the raft, it lurches farther under the dock, nearly launching him into the water. But he crouches and clutches the rope that runs along the transom. When the bobbing settles, he gets to work untying the shuttle from the yacht. “They paid for a show, and I intend to give it to them.”
“This is crazy,” says the bass.
“Maybe.” The tenor stands up, prompting a new set of waves. The dock lights reflect off his shoes and cast shadows across his face. “But going home and giving up on what we love would be even crazier.”
The three singers on the pier glance at each other, then out at the party barge. “I’m too old to jump,” says the countertenor.
The tenor points back down the pier. “We passed a ladder. I’ll pick you up.”
One year earlier:
Maya found the tenor on their porch swing, his head hung and eyes cinched, with tears smeared into his red-maple beard. She paused behind the open screen door. “Did you see the doctor today?”
“What did she say?”
If she held the door for him, maybe he’d take the hint and come inside. Behind his slumped silhouette, identical porches stretched to the horizon. Two houses down, Mrs. Black knitted and drank tea. One past that, Jim Garrison snored in his lounge chair. On the other side, just next door, the new dad whose name she couldn’t remember, bounced his whimpering newborn in the fading twilight. Everyone could hear everything.
“She must have said something,” said Maya.
Maya’s husband inhaled like he was trying to breathe through a pillow. “I explained how I’ve been feeling, and she suggested I exercise more.”
The tenor’s grief was a tiny invisible splinter in the tip of her finger. Sometimes she could work calmly and rationally at removing it; other times desperation took over. Days would go by where the pain disappeared and she assumed the sliver had worked itself out. Then all of sudden the throbbing would start again, and she would give anything to rid herself—him—them of his agony.
“You could see a different doctor,” she said.
“I’m done with doctors.”
“You have to try something.”
“I have no idea what to do,” said the tenor. “Tell me what to do.”
Two porches away Mrs. Black cleared her throat and shook her head. A knitting complication, no doubt, but Maya still took a step into the house. She tightened her grip on the side of the door. “Your best option is to find something you love.”
“I love you.”
“And I love you, too. But I can’t be the only thing.”
The tenor slumped farther forward. Maya paused before making the suggestion she dreaded most, but maybe the time had come. “I think you should start your group.”
The tenor leaned back on the bench and covered his face with his hand. He lowered his voice. “What about the kids?”
“I can handle the kids.”
“I’ll be gone all the time.”
“We’ll appreciate it more when you’re here.”
“I have to do something,” he said.
“I know,” she said. “And I think you should do this.”
The tenor sat up and glanced around, startling when he noticed how close the neighbors were. He hummed a quick C scale, in thirds, and the alarm-clock-school-bell sound made Maya wince. She hid behind the door so he couldn’t see.
The entire bachelor party is gathered on the top deck to toast Brad and deliver speeches. The tenor matches the speed of the cruiser and keeps the dinghy nestled in between the twin fans of the larger vessel’s wake.
“What’s your plan?” asks the baritone.
The tenor quiets his friend with a wave of his hand. “We should wait until it’s a little darker.”
“But they’re distracted,” says the bass. “We should go now.”
The guys on the big boat clink their beer bottles. The tenor squints at the lights sparkling in the water, then twists the throttle and cranks the tiller. It only takes a few seconds to pull the dinghy alongside the slow-moving craft.
“This is the tricky part,” says the tenor. “You’ll have to grab the rail and climb over.”
“A pull-up?” The bass slaps his chest where the tuxedo shirt gaps against his torso. “Have you seen me?”
“We’ll all help,” says the tenor. “That’s what we do. We help each other.”
The baritone goes first, stepping on the inflated gunwale and hopping high enough to catch the edge of the deck with his dress shoe. The countertenor follows, quick and graceful despite his seventy-year-old body. Then the bass moves to the edge, tipping the dinghy enough to allow water to splash in. The baritone and countertenor each take an arm while the tenor lifts one of his friend’s feet, careful to keep his other hand on the tiller. After the bass tumbles into the narrow walkway, the baritone leans over the railing.
“What’s your plan for returning the raft?” he asks.
“It’ll wash up eventually,” says the tenor. In one motion, he flips the motor’s kill switch, springs off the side of the dinghy, and vaults the railing like a gymnast on a pommel horse. After landing, he straightens his lapels. “Who has my bowtie?”
“What do you think you’re doing?” shouts a voice from the bow. The singers turn to see a tall kid in a server’s jacket racing towards them. “You can’t be here.”
“If he reports us, it’s over,” the tenor whispers to his friends.
“I got this,” says the bass. He darts towards the waiter, lifts the young man under his arms, and launches him over the railing into the water. After the splash, the other three men turn to watch as the kid’s head breaches the surface.
“What the fuck?” the young man yells as he wipes his eyes and bobs from the boat’s sphere of light into the growing dim of the evening.
“Sorry,” shouts the bass. The countertenor snatches a life preserver from the wall behind them and throws it. The kid snags it out of the air above his head.
“Nice arm,” says the tenor.
“Thanks,” the old man replies. “That means a lot.”
Six months earlier:
Maya paid her five dollars and rushed into the bar. Her sister and brother-in-law had already found a spot against the wall.
“You made it,” said Denise.
“Barely,” said Maya.
There was nowhere to hang her coat. She had to set her briefcase under the table where it could soak up whatever sweat and spilled drinks lingered on the warped floorboards. The splintering barstool caught the fabric of her suit as soon as she sat. Her feet were killing her.
“Where are the kids?” asked Denise.
“The neighbor woman met them after school.” Maya gestured for the waiter. “They hate her.”
Sanjeet drained the rest of his beer. “Why are there so many people here?”
Maya surveyed the room. It was a curiously large crowd for an open mic night.
A sarcastic smile crept onto Sanjeet’s face. “Perhaps the Melo-Dads and Harmonies are getting famous after all?”
“Be nice,” said Denise.
The Melo-Dads climbed onto the small stage like limo drivers awaiting their next assignments. In the windows above them, the shadow of an ash tree danced in the streetlight. While the group conferred over where to stand, Sanjeet leaned towards Maya.
“How many extra clients did you need to take on to buy him that tuxedo?”
“Very funny,” said Maya.
“Does this mean you’re his groupie? Are you going to throw your underwear onstage?”
By the time the baritone pulled out his pitch pipe and the group hummed its warm up, the waiter arrived at Maya’s table.
“What can I get you?” he asked, at full volume.
“Do you have a pinot?” said Maya.
“Only white zin.”
“Are all these people here for the barbershop?” asked Sanjeet.
The waiter glanced at the stage, where the tenor and his friends were harmonizing the opening bars of “Cheer Up Charlie.” “Are you kidding? There’s a touring comedian going on later.”
“That makes more sense,” said Sanjeet.
Maya looked up to find her husband staring at their table, begging them with his eyes to be quiet. She shrugged. Sanjeet held up his empty beer glass in a mocking toast. The waiter moved on to the next table and took their order just as loudly.
Four stairways allow access to the top deck, one at each corner.
“How great would it be if we each come up a different side, then launch into ‘Goodnight Ladies’ when we meet up top?” asks the bass.
“That would be amazing,” says the tenor. “But it’s too risky. I say we go for the sure thing.” He slaps the handrail of the stairs in front of them. From above, the bachelor party erupts in shouts of surprise or disgust. It’s hard to tell which. “Single file, start singing as soon as we get set. We might not have very long.”
“Why?” asks the baritone.
“We threw a guy overboard. They might want to return the favor.”
“I didn’t think of that,” says the countertenor. He and the other two members of the group consider their suits and shoes and check their pockets.
“Guys,” says the tenor. “It doesn’t matter. We’re invincible. Nothing can touch us tonight.”
He starts up the stairs, but pauses when the baritone grabs his wrist. “You forgot something.”
“What?” the tenor asks.
“We have to warm up.”
For the last time, the baritone pulls the chrome pitch pipe from his pocket. With delicate reverence he lifts the instrument to his lips and sounds a gentle note, barely audible through the laughter overhead. The bass chimes in first with his deep tone. After a few seconds the baritone joins him, then the tenor, and the countertenor completes the quartet with his sharp, high hum. With eyes closed they hold their notes for a few seconds, then a few seconds more. The tenor clasps the countertenor’s hand, then the countertenor reaches for the bass’s, which continues until the circle is complete. As their breath wanes, their octaves fade into the drone of the engine and one of the partygoers up top shouting, “You should have seen my dick when I was done, you should have seen it.” After a final squeeze of each other’s hands, the Melo-Dads form a line up the stairway.
There isn’t anywhere to stand on the top deck. The sudden appearance of the quartet forces the nearest partygoers to press into the crowd. One by one the rest of the party turn to see what’s happening. A wrinkled old guy with pearly dentures, a tall white dude in glasses, a stocky Latino man, and their leader out front with a bushy beard and shaved head, all in ill-fitting tuxedos: amongst the tanned and blonde bachelor party, all dressed in royal blue or salmon or mint, they look like freshmen at a high school dance who misunderstood the dress code. The moment everyone quiets, the singers gesture outward with their right hands and burst into “Sweet Adeline.”
Three minutes later, they finish. No one claps. The groom punches the man standing next to him on the arm. “You’re a fucking asshole, Trent. How did you sneak them on board?”
“I didn’t,” Trent replies.
Right then, the sound of heavy steps thunders from the opposite stairway, and four more crew members in white uniforms cram onto the deck. “Where’s Paulie?” the employee in front asks.
“Who’s Paulie?” asks the tenor.
“I bet he means the guy I threw overboard,” says the bass.
The tenor rolls his eyes. “Obviously.” The crew members push through the party towards the Melo-Dads. “Go,” says the tenor to his friends. “Now.”
The bass charges down the stairs first, trailed by the countertenor, then the baritone. Before he follows, the tenor stands tall, clears his throat, and offers his final audience a gracious bow.
Three weeks earlier:
Maya paused in the basement to weep after retrieving a new roll of paper towel. Earlier that morning, she’d done the unthinkable. She took the elevator to her office’s third floor, where she found Penelope, another of the firm’s lawyers, who specialized in family law. They had bonded at last year’s holiday party over a shared dislike of eggnog. Sometimes, they grabbed lunch together from the café on the first floor.
Maya closed the door of Penelope’s office and lowered her voice. “How do you know when it’s time to talk to a divorce lawyer?”
Penelope rested her pen on her lips and tilted her head. “It’s never too early,” she said. “A little groundwork can make a tremendous difference later.” Maya didn’t mean to reveal her despair, but her expression must have. Penelope added, “I’m so sorry. If things work out, he’ll never have to know.”
At home that evening, Maya tore a sheet off the new paper towel roll to wipe her eyes, then climbed the stairs and reentered the kitchen. Their daughter, who was supposed to be doing the dishes, stared mindlessly at her phone.
“Where’s your dad?” Maya asked.
“I don’t know,” the pre-teen snapped. “On the porch, I think.”
Maya crept through the family room, then slipped on her shoes. She stood for a minute with her hand on the doorknob before turning it.
The warm spring evening had enticed most of the neighbors outside. Every porch was full, it seemed, as far as she could see: spouses and kids and grandparents and pets, grilled meat and music, laughter and conversation. Hers, on the other hand, featured the tenor once again huddled in the corner of the porch swing, cheeks red, with liquid trails leading from his eyes to the forest of his beard.
“Come with me,” said Maya.
“Now,” she said.
Her husband followed her up the stairs to their bedroom, then sat on the bed where she pointed. She had no plan. Hug him, fuck him, slap him. Pack a suitcase while he watched or pull out the photo album from their first year in the house, back when he had hair and she was hugely pregnant. Maybe she could try each of these, one at a time, taking breaks in between to record the effects like a science experiment.
“What’s wrong now?” she asked.
The tenor sat up and blinked like he had just woken up from a too-long midday nap. “Remember when I told you that Miguel’s wife was pregnant again, so he probably needs to quit?”
“You still have months to find a replacement.”
“Fritz just found out he’s getting transferred to Detroit.” The tears filled the corners of his eyes like an accidental oil strike in an old movie. “In three weeks. It’s over.”
“And it was finally working. I was happy.”
Maya sat next to him. “We can fix this.”
“We’ll figure it out.” Touching him would have helped; his upturned hand rested on his thigh, waiting for hers. But she couldn’t, she just couldn’t. “Until then, you’ll just have to make the most of the shows you have left.”
Back on the walkway where they boarded, the tenor pushes the countertenor to keep the group moving, but there’s nowhere to go. The cruise’s waitstaff storms down the stairs behind them while the groom, best man, and a few other guys in deck shoes spill out of the fore stairway, trapping the Melo-Dads in between.
“Why are you here?” asks the groom.
“Seriously, where’s Paulie?” asks the head waiter.
“You better come clean or we’ll beat the shit out of you,” says the best man.
“You might as well tell us,” says the waiter. “The sheriff’s already on the way.”
As more people from the top deck fill the walkway, the quartet cinches closer around the tenor. The encroaching men stop a few feet shy of the musicians. There’s nowhere for the Melo-Dads to go, and nothing for any of them to do until law enforcement arrives.
“I think we know what has to be done,” says the tenor. “’Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat,’ on my count.” He raises his hand and snaps off the beat, but before he reaches the fourth quarter note, the baritone bats his hand away.
“Stop it,” he says. “This has gone way too far. We’re about to be arrested.”
“I can’t go to jail,” says the bass. “My baby’s almost here.”
“Can we swim for it?” the baritone asks.
“Probably not.” The countertenor leans on the railing, peering over the water. “I can’t see the shore.”
“We have to try something,” says the bass. He glances from the waiters to the partygoers, then throws one of his legs over the railing. The other two members look to the tenor. This is all your fault—what are you going to do? But the tenor freezes. Across the lake, flashing red and blue lights emerge from the evening haze, accompanied by the whine of the police boat. The bass hoists his other leg over the railing, slips, and falls sideways into the water. The remaining Melo-Dads spring to the edge to watch. So does the crew and the party guests.
For a moment they all stare at the amoebic collections of bubbles on the surface where the bass landed. Someone farther down the line of spectators says, “I don’t see him,” and someone else says, “He should’ve surfaced by now.”
“Someone needs to do something,” says the countertenor.
The tenor responds with, “Tell me what to do, and I’ll do it.”
Maya waits in her car in the parking lot of the police station for twenty minutes before she unbuckles her seat belt and wanders inside. The deputy explained what had happened over the phone, which offered some hope. Maybe some craziness and violence would finally numb the red-hot claws that middle age had lodged in her poor husband’s back.
And if not? As Maya approaches the young woman in a police uniform at the station’s front desk, she shakes off the question. If this event hasn’t finally made a difference in the tenor’s situation, maybe this is it. Maybe the time for the unthinkable has come.
“Is yours the one with the beard?” the officer asks.
“Come with me.”
The cop leads Maya down a hallway into a space that looks like a dentist’s waiting room. The tenor sits in the far corner, outside the range of the overhead lights. Maya takes the chair next to his.
“How’s Miguel?” she asks.
“He’ll be fine,” he says. “The police had a hard time pulling him out of the water, but he was arguing with them by the time they loaded him in the ambulance.”
This time, she grabs his hand and clasps it in her lap. The tenor isn’t crying, nor does he look like he’s about to. “Are you okay?” she asks.
“We got to sing one last time,” he says.
“We sounded really good.”
In the hallway outside, the countertenor passes by, holding his wife’s wrinkled hand. The old man pauses when he sees the tenor, then steps into the doorway. A few seconds later the baritone and his husband come down the hall, and he too crosses into the room. The three men look at each other as if the screen is about to freeze before the credits roll, and Maya has no idea what thoughts or feelings they share in common. Before she can even posit a guess, the other two Melo-Dads depart.
“Don’t be sad,” says Maya. “I’m sure you’ll get to sing again.”
“Maybe.” The tenor pulls his hand back. He stands up and squeezes her shoulder. “I didn’t realize some people hate acapella so much.”
“Weird,” says Maya. Where he touches her, her muscles relax. “I didn’t realize that either.”
Eric Rasmussen is a Wisconsin author who serves as fiction editor for Sundog Lit, as well as editor for the upper Midwest literary journal Barstow & Grand. He has placed short fiction in North American Review (2022 Kurt Vonnegut Prize runner-up), Blue Mesa Review (2022 Fiction Contest winner), Fugue, The MacGuffin, and Pithead Chapel, among others. Find him online at theotherericrasmussen.com