Pyramid Scheme

by Ryan Werner

The Crawlspace was decent but named in earnest. A four-piece band placed anywhere in the room made comfort difficult and sweating mandatory. It's a music venue in the same way that a Buick with a tape-deck is a music venue.

All of its appeal was in sideways logic, that only bands who loved what they did would play at a place so opposed to reason. My own musical ability was pitiful—vulgar, even—and my only usefulness was in the auxiliary tasks involved with any band playing any show.   I was van driver, gear loader, merchandise seller.

"And it has cobblestone in front of the doorway," Jeff, the bassist for the Honeybreakers, was telling me. "Do you know what that does to the casters on an amplifier? Fuck."

Jeff wanted to quit because his life was better than his band.

"My wife's pregnant," he said. "I only get two weeks off for vacation and this tour is a big chunk of it. What do you think will happen if I keep doing this? I won't even have any money left to buy back my half of the record collection after the divorce."

"Right notes at the right time," I said. "There's an easy loneliness to most things."

I was witch doctor. High priest. Soothsayer.


Tommy was the master of the ghost knob. When the soundguy would tell him that he's too loud, Tommy would turn around and lightly run his fingers around the volume knob on his amp and then follow it up with a lighter touch on his guitar. The other guitarist, Hank, followed his lead and every first chord became a massive event.

Anyone who didn't leave the room ended up in love with the band—the same flimsy reasoning that led the band to the venue. When the room did clear out, it was my job to tell Tommy that he's getting too old to walk a room. This was Jeff's job before he stopped wanting the same thing as everyone else in the band.

The borrowed van was a surrogate home. Tommy was riding shotgun and everyone else was sleeping. Hank and the drummer, Burnout Mike, were all the way in the back by the gear, sharing opposite ends of the same pillow. Jeff was curled into the middle seat next to a pile of amplifiers.

I turned to Tommy and said, "Turning down isn't the same as taking the night off."

"It's a guaranteed reaction," he said.

"Shouldn't you trust the songs?"

"I don't trust rock and roll at all," he said. "It's a pyramid scheme."

I shrugged and ran over something in the road that was already dead.

He said, "Where's the credibility? Where's the money? I like porno because it's an approximation of fucking. I like wrestling because it's an approximation of violence. What's rock and roll an approximation of?"

Jeff shouted, "It's the real thing and the sham."

An approximation of life.


Years before he didn't want to be in the band, Jeff drank a bottle of gin before a show and almost got kicked out. He played the songs correctly, but in the wrong order. Nobody ever figured out why. I thought it was maybe an interpretation of a Honeybreakers set, a piece of high art that I also thought kind of sounded like hammered shit.

Jeff begged to be back in, said how much the band meant to him—everything, at the time—and that was it. Tommy forgave him because they had known each other nearly twenty years, which would be a long time even if they were adjoining walls instead of, say, people.

For a while, inhibition was still an acceptable topic of discussion. It wasn't until later that they began to merely stammer through what they felt, silently resent what they observed in one another.


Jeff knew he wouldn't make it through the tour without some sort of way to measure literal fidelity against figurative fidelity. We'd started going to the van before shows to listen to him and Tommy's high school recordings and talk about personal troubles borrowed from the appendix of a Beatles biography

Jeff pulled a cassette player the size of a shoebox out of his bag and said, "It seems like everyone wants to be humble and nobody wants to be humbled."

He filtered through a bag of tapes and pulled one out delicately, as if selecting a donut or a child. "This one's just me and Tommy," he said. "Cheap Trick covers."

The age of the tape was apparent in both the muffled sound and the fact that Tommy didn't know how to play leads yet—he was singing the bendy guitar notes in "I Want You to Want Me."

"Surrender, surrender," Jeff on tape sang in the background of the next track. "But don't give yourself the AIDS."

"Fuck," Jeff in real time said.

I nodded and said, "Catchy. Wonder why they didn't go that direction."

We went back inside and sat with Hank and Burnout Mike, who, by the time they remembered that the altitude in Salt Lake City would allow them to get completely shitfaced off 3.2% alcohol beer, had already counteracted it by drinking too much.

The first band was setting up and brushing their hair. I made a list of things that interested me more than watching their set and came up with most things. I went to the bathroom and looked at my face, which would have been a better idea anytime between a week and fifteen years ago. I couldn't remember why I went to the bathroom in the first place.

Tommy walked in and said nothing to me, but I could see him over my shoulder doing either exactly what I was doing or a slight variation on it. I glanced back and forth between our reflections. There was something about our faces that meant we were no longer children even if we played their games.

I asked, "Do you think Utah makes our faces sag?"

"When you're older," Tommy said, "You don't stop wanting the things you always wanted. You just start to wonder why you want them."

We walked back to the side of the stage where the opening band was playing the first notes of their first show. I watched them watch their girlfriends watch them and waited for a mirror to break.


Revising my dreams into the necessary shapes involved going out to the van every night and playing guitar in the street. I waited until after the show, after everyone had locked into the distractions that would take them through to morning. I would strap on whichever guitar I grabbed first and commence to shredding first against the van and then eventually to the center of the street. This was a small reassurance that my life would eventually resolve itself if attacked from compromising angles.

We stayed in neighborhoods that feared silence. My musicality was comparable to that of a carburetor filled with pennies. I only knew Honeybreakers songs, and even then it was only an approximation of someone else's muscle memory.

It was during these solo concerts that I thought of where I'd be if I had built a mindset out of songs instead of manifestos, what would be different if I had followed through on either.

Satisfaction is a lateral move.


As soon as I put the last piece of equipment into the van and closed the door, all I could think about was the next action of consequence I'd take, which would be the exact opposite of the one I just did. Five hours later we pulled up to the practice space and unburdened ourselves of the gear.

The bar across the street was wedged between a lumber yard and a porno warehouse. As a home for functioning alcoholics, business picked up between work and dinner and then again right before closing. Hank and Burnout Mike went in for a drink once the gear was locked up.

"Two guys walk into a bar," Jeff said.

I kicked a cigarette butt into another cigarette butt. "And then what?"

"That's it."

Jeff walked to his car and Tommy and I watched him for a moment as he sat down in the driver's seat, breathed in, and held it. We did the same.

When he drove off, Tommy and I got into the van. He said, "I'm thinking of the new songs."

"French horn?"

"Organ," he said. "Country balls with a punk rock dick. It'll work. Trust me."

"How can I not?" I said, but in the back of my head I thought about the real thing and the sham and the last days I was young.


With apologies to Police Teeth.


BIO: Ryan Werner is a janitor in the Midwest. He is the author of the short short story collection Shake Away These Constant Days (Jersey Devil Press, 2012). He runs the small chapbook press Passenger Side Books and has a website named