Red Rocks

Red Rocks
Joseph Downing

THE EXPANSE OF LAND made the distance between objects deceiving, increasing the space between land and sky so much you saw the earth curve before you. I saw this in the sloping rocks spread out before us, spaced with abandon as if cast off to lighten the weight of the ice that had covered this land not so long ago. Even the horizon, splitting the orange and green land from the azure sky, seemed a true black line, something from a child’s drawing. I considered trying to explain this to Sean, but it seemed silly, unexplainable, and I was tired of receiving vague nods. We went back to the songs.


“Blackout Blues.”


“No way. That’s what we most want to hear, so they won’t play it,” I said.

“You don’t think so?”


“I hope they do anyway.”

We again fell silent, sitting on the bumper of my pickup truck, watching the line of clucking VW microbuses and expensive and dusty SUVs wind their way up the snakelike road to the Amphitheater parking lot.

“I’m glad we got here early,” Sean said.

“You’d think these people would plan a little better, since following this band around is all most of them have to do.”

Sean looked away and sipped his beer; silence returned. It had been that way since he arrived: small burst of conversation, both of us relieved to have something to talk about, followed by long periods of nothing to say. It’s always been that way, really. This was the first time he had visited me since I had moved to Colorado a year ago, and I wanted things to be different between us. We were older now. I had hoped time would smooth things out and we could just be friends, that I wouldn’t have to be the older brother anymore. But it was the same. So instead, we filled our time with activity: hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park, touring the Coors Brewery, and tonight—his last night—this concert.

I watched him from the corner of my eye. Thin and pale, hair already receding at twenty-two. He sat quietly, alone in himself, staring off to the sky. I fought between wanting to hug him and wanting to shake him violently.

“The sky’s so blue here,” he said, with the awe of someone who had lived in a cave all his life and had walked outside for the first time. I’ve heard him say this at least three times now.

“You get used to it.”

“I don’t think I ever would.”

Around the edges of the parking lot people had set up booths selling vegetarian gyros, T-shirts, and bootleg CDs. Like us, many sat at the back of their cars, drinking, eating, mingling. Others kicked around Hacky Sacks or juggled those stupid little sticks they liked so much. Music from car stereos competed to be heard and people were already dancing that same hippie dance with militaristic consistency: swaying, spinning, arms swimming through the air, faces frozen in an expression of serene ecstasy. Tomorrow they would move on and set up in San Diego or Saint Louis, wherever the band went next. I was naïve to think this pseudo-hippie bullshit would end when Jerry Garcia died.

These people get on my nerves,” I said. If I could watch the concert from inside a bubble where I wouldn’t have to see or hear them, I would do it. Knowing I was irritated, Sean didn’t say anything. I didn’t want to ruin his last night here, and I resolved to improve my mood.

“Who knows, they may play “Coconut.” I pushed my beer towards him. “Here’s to your trip to Colorado.” A hollow ring echoed from the bottles when they touched, and we pulled them back, both swigging deeply.

I stood and stretched, rubbing the soreness from the back of my legs. The sun was beginning to drop and a purplish tint framed the edges of the sky. I looked back at the immense rock formation jutting from the earth that formed the natural amphitheater. The two monstrous slabs faced each other as if slammed into the earth with fury, with the stage and the seats separating them like a referee between two boxers.

My brother had seen Red Rocks for the first time yesterday, when we had driven up to look at the view. We had stood on the last row and had looked back to the rolling hills and then, farther on, Denver. A lone man had sat cross-legged on the stage playing the bongos. I had been shocked at how far the lonely sound carried, echoing off the rock to us at the top.

I was jarred back to the present when a stringy-haired kid, maybe eighteen, dirty and thin, dangled a T-shirt in front of my face. He had a dozen more draped across his arm. “Interested? Ten bucks. Years from now you can say you were here.”

“I can do that now,” I said.

He gave me a hazy grin. “Anything else you need before the show? I can help you out.”

“No, thanks, man. We’re good.”

He looked at Sean. “He’s good, too,” I said. Sean nodded.

“You’re gonna miss half the show, without what I have to give you.”

“You’re wasting your time.”

He shrugged and began walking away. “You’re first time at Red Rocks?” he said over his shoulder, smirking. Sean looked up and said yes, it was.

“You were here just yesterday.” I threw myempty bottle in the cooler, causing water and ice to splash out on the truck bed.

“Yeah, but not for a concert. That’s all I meant.”

“He was mocking us.”


“Yeah, oh.” I opened another beer and took a deep breath. Sean was again sitting perfectly still, staring off into the distance as if waiting for something important.

“You ready for one?”

He poured the last drab out of his bottle. “Yeah, sure.” We returned to drinking and watching the spectacle around us. “Do you think they make enough money selling stuff to follow the band around all summer?” Sean said.

“No, it’s just a pastime for them. I guarantee most of them are still living off their parents. Even the older ones. Trust fund babies.”

Sean didn’t say anything. We sat quietly for minutes that felt like hours, and I began to wish we hadn’t come. I was ashamed to admit to myself that I was actually looking forward to taking him to the airport tomorrow. Sean’s face was turned away from me the same way it had been turned away from me a thousand times before. When he finally spoke, the difference in his voice surprised me.

“She’s beautiful,” he said.

I followed his eyes to a van across from us where a cluster of hippie kids was hanging out. She must have just arrived, joining the group already there because I wouldn’t have missed her before. She was attractive in the way most of them were—tan, thin, natural—only more so. She was wearing a homemade dress covered with patches. Her dark hair was straight and parted in the middle and fell down past her shoulders. The guy next to her curly hair hanging in his face, Jim Morrison in a poncho. She tapped him on the shoulder and said something in his ear.

When he spoke, he seemed annoyed and quickly turned back to his conversation with the group. She stood there a moment and then caught Sean watching her, and for once he didn’t look away, but smiled back. She walked over and leaned against the fender on Sean’s side of the truck.

“Can you think of a better place to be right now?”

“No,” Sean said. I just nodded, deciding to let Sean have this conversation alone.

“Is this your first Panic show?” she asked.

“Yeah. But we’ve been to Red Rocks before, just not to a show. At least I haven’t,” Sean said, glancing at me.

“Mind if I have a beer?”

Sean opened one and handed it to her.

“You guys wouldn’t have an extra ticket, would you?”

So there it was. Sean looked disappointed and said we didn’t. She shrugged, as if to say I had to ask. She introduced herself as Cam and she and Sean continued to talk, but I stopped paying attention. She would leave soon anyway, now that she knew Sean didn’t have what she wanted.

After a few more minutes, the guy in the poncho and two of his buddies walked over.

Poncho-guy stuck his head between Sean and Cam, causing them to jerk their heads back. He laughed.

“Any luck?” he said to Cam, taking the beer from her hand and drinking deeply.

“Not with finding tickets. But I’m making new friends.” She introduced him as Buck and his two friends as Mike and Arron. Cam pulled a joint from the Poncho’s front pocket.

“Do your new friends want to get high?” he said.

She turned to us. Sean shrugged. “No,” I said.

Buck lit the joint, took a long drag, and then grabbed Cam roughly by the neck and pushed his mouth against hers. After a few seconds, he pulled back and Cam coughed, smoke escaping from her mouth. Buck grinned. “I think I’ll just give the joint to you, man,” he said, handing it to Sean. Sean didn’t say anything, took a small hit, and passed it back to Buck.

“Are you guys going to tomorrow’s show?” Buck said.

“No, just tonight,” I said.

“We’ll be at all three. Then on to the Santa Fe show. That’s the only way to get the real experience. Night after night. Watch them explore, evolve.”

“That is, if you get tickets.”

“The tickets will turn up, don’t worry. Just got to get into the zone, make it happen.”

“Oh yeah man, that’s all it is.”

He watched me, trying to decide if I was being sarcastic. He shook his head and smiled. He turned to Mike and Arron, and talked so I couldn’t hear him. He spun around and grabbed Cam’s arm.

“Let’s go, babe. Our tickets are out there somewhere.”

“I’m tired of looking for tickets. I just want to hang out for a while. Can’t you go without me?”
Buck turned, no longer smiling. “I’m not going to baby-sit you every show.” “I’ll catch up in a few minutes.”

“C’mon, man, it’ll be starting soon,” Arron said.

“If you can’t find us, I’m not waiting,” Buck said. They walked away.

Cam waited until they were gone and then sighed. “I’m sorry about that. I just need to be away from him for a while. He’s just not the same when he’s with those guys.”

“You can hang out with us,” Sean said. He scooted down the bumper towards me to make room for her. He was close enough that our legs touched.

“I’ll just stand for a bit,” I said.

People were starting to filter into the amphitheater and I could hear the muffled noise of the sound check on stage. Sean and Cam had their heads together and she seemed to be telling him a story because he just nodded with a concerned look on his face while she talked. I walked to the front, sat down in the driver’s seat and watched the dying sunlight fade to purple. Cam startled me by knocking on the window and waving. I looked back and Sean was still sitting on the bumper. I got out and walked back.

“Where’s she going?”

“Into the concert,” he said, looking away.

“Where did she get a ticket?”

“I gave her mine.”

“What? What the hell did you do that for? How are you going to get in?”

“I guess I’m not, but that’s okay. It made me happy to give it to her.”

“She was just using you, man.”

He stared straight ahead, his lips a tight line. “She didn’t want to take it. I made her. But it doesn’t matter.”

“It doesn’t matter.”

He turned to me, his face tired and sad, and slowly shook his head. “You don’t understand. You—” He started to speak again, but stopped.

I slumped down on the bumper, exasperated, feeling more drained than I remembered having ever felt. Sean was looking away, back to the same place in the sky. In our silence, the minutes ticked by, heavy and slow. People streamed by us towards the gates, their laughter and conversation white noise. I gave up.

“Here. Take my ticket. I’ve been here before.”

Sean looked down. “That’s not what I wanted.”

“I’m serious. I’d rather see you go. I’ll listen from here. Maybe you can find her inside. It’s not that big. C’mon. It’s your last night.”

He stood up slowly and took the ticket. He turned it over in his hands and then mumbled thanks. I pointed where to go and he started towards the entrance. He looked so frail from the back, moving awkwardly up the path. I watched him until he disappeared into the crowd.

I sat in the front seat of my truck and listened to the concert through the open window. I was surprised at how well I could still hear it. The parking lot was nearly deserted and it felt quiet, despite the music. The night had turned purple-black, and in its stillness, I felt a sense of seclusion, but not loneliness. No, definitely not loneliness. I felt sorry about a lot of things, without exactly knowing what they were. I didn’t know what Sean felt, and I wasn’t going to kid myself that my small gesture that night would make everything different. But that was all right. I stretched out in the truck bed, watched the sky, and listened.

The bright and multicolored stage lights bounced and glowed between the rocks, connecting them so they no longer seemed separate, but whole. Somehow, in the thousands of people inside, I was sure Sean had found Cam. I pictured him standing next to her, talking over the loud music, with her laughing and trying in vain to get him to dance. And tomorrow, when he left, he would remember her and being there, and he would think that the trip hadn’t been a waste after all.

The lights turned a sobering white and people began pouring from the exits, so I knew the concert was over. The band never did play “Coconut.” It wasn’t a perfect show, but it was still good. I could live with that.

about the author
Joseph Downing is lawyer and writer from Dayton, Ohio. His short story, “A Day in the Sun,” has been published in The Best of Ohio Writers Anthology and has won honorable mention in Glimmer Train’s annual new writer’s contest. He has twice published in Flights literary magazine, is an Impact Weekly Fiction Contest Winner, and his nonfiction book, The Abundant Bohemian: How to Live an Unconventional Life Without Starving in the Process, will be released in 2014.