He stood just under six feet and he was cleanly proportioned. He'd been cleanly proportioned the day Riley met him and nothing about that had changed in the ten years since. He had soft eyes and an open face and that was the same too. He had changed in the body. His bones had hardened and he walked with the rolling gait of a fighter. Looking at him now, he couldn't be anything but. That was the biggest change.
They drove down to Tijuana three days before the fight. Riley knew a place where they could practice and the motels in Mexico were cheap. He figured they could do with an extra twenty-four hours getting used to the place. They left at ten. Cal fell asleep as soon as they hit the interstate. That was fine with Riley. He had his thermos of coffee, and there was the radio. As far as he was concerned, the more sleep Cal got the better.
He remembered they used to drive clear across the country, chasing down fights. He'd drive for hours with Cal sitting beside him like sleeping dynamite. It was a feeling. Driving into a fight with the win already in place. It made the drive easy. He'd drive and he'd watch the feeling spread out all around him. Like he had a million bucks riding with him in the car. That used to be the feeling of it.
That wasn't the feeling now, but he didn't mind. He looked out the window. There was nothing alongside the road except for gas stations and car dealerships and the occasional Best Value Motor Inn. Like all of America was about the driving. The road hardly swerved and the other cars were just coasting along. Riley kept at seventy. He didn't think he changed lanes once.
He drove until his back was sore and the car was running low on gas. He looked over at Cal. The kid was sleeping sound and he hated to wake him by stopping so he kept on driving for another twenty minutes. The landscape outside was flat and dry and scorched by the sun and the feeling, as he drove along in silence, was very gentle. The gas meter hit empty. Riley edged the Jeep over one lane and barreled down an exit ramp.
Cal woke as the car slowed. He sat, blinking slowly and staring out the window. Neither man spoke as Riley swung into a gas station and stopped before an empty pump. He switched the ignition off. The engine sputtered for a moment, then fell silent.
"Gas," Riley said. He looked at Cal. "And you should stretch your legs. Make sure you don't cramp up sleeping like that."
Cal nodded. They both got out of the car.
"Gotta take a leak," Cal said.
Riley nodded. He didn't look up. "Go ahead."
Riley stared at the ground as the tank filled. He listened to the gas glugging through. He listened to the numbers clicking.
"What kind of mileage you get with that thing?" Cal was back.
He clicked to an even thirty dollars. Then he dropped the nozzle into its stand. He screwed the gas cap back on and knocked the door shut.
Riley looked at Cal. He was leaning with one hand against the car. He was still yawning. He nodded to Riley.
"You have a good time in Vegas?"
"You know how it is. There were a couple good fights."
"I heard Vera looked good."
"He looked real good."
"How'd things go with Duane?"
"He got the win. We found a nice little weakness in Diego's game. You could tell from the tapes he dropped his right hand, so I told Duane to go out there and jab. Take him to pieces. It worked."
Cal nodded. He stared at the car, shifting his weight. Riley smiled.
"Come on. Let's get going."
"You need money?"
"Don't worry about it."
"I got money."
"I said, don't worry about it."
Cal got into the car. Riley followed him. They drove out. A couple seconds and they were back on the freeway. Riley flicked on the radio.
"You still listening to this crap?"
Cal grinned at Riley, then looked out the window. He sat with his hands resting on his legs and he watched the landscape flash by. Riley glanced out the window. He thought California looked pretty much the same, everywhere along the freeways. He looked at Cal. He was still staring out the window.
"Get some sleep."
Cal didn't respond. Riley looked at him again. "Get some sleep," he said. His voice was gentle. Cal nodded. He looked out the window a bit longer. Then he settled into his seat with his head pillowed against his arm. Pretty soon he was asleep again, breathing slow and regular. Riley sat back, satisfied. He continued driving south.
As they got closer to the border the color drained out. He never saw the color changing but it faded right in front of him. A couple more miles and the landscape emptied out too. The buildings disappeared and the overpasses vanished and it changed the proportions somehow. There was a lot more sky. Riley couldn't even see the road in front of him. All he could see was sky.
The radio crapped out just past San Diego. Then the signs started turning up. Signs selling car insurance. Signs selling bail bonds. Riley clocked them as he drove. They were like a countdown to the border. He drove past the signs advertising stateside parking and the ones advertising shuttles across the border. He saw a big board, written in capital letters. LAST EXIT USA. After that the road funneled into Mexico and the border hit him in the face.
The dirt jumped out. The people did too. The signs and the lights and everything else. Every time he crossed the border and dropped into Mexico he felt the difference right away. The crossing happened quick. The cars sped through on a six-lane road and they didn't even slow. There was nothing at the border stopping them. Border Patrol just sat in a bunch of black Jeeps and watched as the cars poured into the country.
Riley glanced out the window. There were people everywhere. He could see the vendors cluttering up the street selling ponchos and plastic figurines and bowls of fruit. They were scuttling around and they were hustling for their work. He didn't know what that said about Tijuana. He thought about Mexico and he thought about Tijuana and the two didn't seem the same. It was like staring at the border so long had made Tijuana different.
Cal was up again and looking around. He seemed restless after his sleep. He craned his neck to stare out the window. He fiddled with the lock on the door, tapping it with his fingers.
"So this is Tijuana."
"Yeah. This is Tijuana."
"You know your way around?"
"Sure. I've had a couple guys in fights down here."
"Good thing I got you around."
Riley glanced at him. "That a thank-you?"
Cal smiled. He shrugged. "Sure," he said. "Okay."
Riley shook his head. He concentrated on driving.
They turned down the Paseo de Los Heroes. There were a bunch of crazy monuments and a bunch of crazy roundabouts on the boulevard. Driving was a fucking nightmare. The street was packed with cars. Nobody stayed in their lane and anyway the lanes just disappeared at every roundabout. There was a roundabout every thirty seconds it felt like. Riley tightened his grip on the wheel and he jerked them down and around the road. His shoulders only dropped once they turned off the boulevard and cut down toward Agua Caliente.
One street over and the city looked totally different. The California license plates disappeared. The bars and clubs dropped out into tile shops and auto repair garages. The tourists never made it off Revolution Avenue. They never made it past the margarita bars and the donkey carts. Drive a couple blocks and Tijuana started looking like any other deadbeat town, just with everything written in Spanish and everybody driving a little bit more reckless.
They were staying at some motel a couple streets away from the Caliente, some place called the Playas. The promoters used it because it was close by, but Riley figured the place came with a warning. It came with words like "basic" and "convenient" and "local." Polite words telling them they were putting them up in some nameless dump. Well, he knew there wasn't any such thing as a luxury motel in Tijuana, and Riley wasn't the kind to fall for a name, but still a Motel 6 would be nice. Some place with a 1-800 number you could call when your valuables went missing. He'd bet this Playas joint didn't even have an in-room safe.
He swung into the motel parking lot. He guessed the tourists were turning up everywhere nowadays. He could smell the crew cuts and the surfer shorts before he got out of the car. The paint was peeling and there was a balcony running down one side of the building and he could already imagine the kids congregating on it with their beers. He pictured beer cans floating in the pool out back. He pictured loud music. He pictured spring break Riley snapped the ignition off. If there was noise late at night he was going to shut it down, and personally. Cal needed to sleep solid.
The place looked deserted when they walked in. There was a bell on the counter, and a sign reading "Please Ring For Service" in English and Spanish. The handwriting on the sign was a little wobbly but it was legible. Riley dropped his bags on the floor and looked at the bell. He slammed his palm onto the bell once, twice. He did it a third time.
After a minute, an overweight man appeared behind the registration desk. He was breathing heavy and his shirt was soaked in sweat. Riley frowned.
"Can I help you?"
"Yeah, we're staying for a few nights."
"You got a reservation?"
"We got a reservation. We're paying for the first night. The TFL's paying for the rest. They should've sent you a memo or something."
"Sure. Fill this out, will you?" He pushed a registration card across to Riley.
Riley leaned into the counter and began on the card. He wasn't so big anymore, but he was still pretty imposing. He was even more imposing when he wasn't feeling friendly, and the guy wasn't making him feel friendly.
The man remained placid. He looked at Riley. He looked at Cal. Riley straightened up and handed the card to the man.
"So," he said as he examined their registration card, "You boys are here for the fights I take it."
"Yeah, we're here for the fights," Riley said. "You follow fighting?"
"Hard not to when it's happening so close." He shrugged. "Should be a good night. Rivera alone is worth the price of admission. The rest of the card could be total shit and you'd still have a sellout."
Riley pressed a finger onto the registration card. "About that rate. I was given a quote of forty-six dollars. Nineteen dollars off the rack rate."
The man nodded. He examined the registration card. He put it back on the counter and crossed it with a pencil. He resumed talking.
"I wasn't a huge fan of fighting until the first time I saw Rivera fight. Blew my mind. Never seen anything like it. I figure every fight fan can remember their first Rivera fight."
Riley cleared his throat noisily. "Another thing. Can you get us a room that's quiet? As far away from the pool as possible." He nodded at Cal. "The kid needs to sleep."
The man shuffled round slowly and examined the keys hanging on the board behind the desk. He picked out a pair and turned back to face them. He nodded to Cal.
"You fighting Saturday?"
"Well, forget what I said about the rest of the card, will you? I haven't really looked at it yet. Not closely."
"That's okay," Cal said. "It doesn't matter."
He smiled at the man. The man beamed back at him.
"You know how it is. It's a pretty big thing, having the champion fight down here."
"Like you said. The guy's a legend."
"The man's the whole sport. Nobody can touch him."
"I guess not too many guys can give him a fight."
Riley glanced at Cal. "Look, we're sort of tired out from the drive. Maybe you could just confirm that rate of forty-six dollars a night, give us the keys and we'll let ourselves in? Like I said, forty-six dollars a night nineteen dollars off the rack rate."
"Sí, sí." The man nodded. He came out from behind the desk and picked up Cal's bag.
"I'll take it," Cal said.
"No, please." The man shook his head and smiled and then began walking down the hall with the bag. They followed him. "This room is a good deal." The man spoke over his shoulder. "You will see. It is a nice room with a balcony!"
Riley was frowning the whole walk up to the room. Cal just kept nodding every time the man said something.
The man let them into a room on the far end of the second floor. It wasn't so bad, and it was far away from the pool. Inside, there were two double beds, a couple of dressers and some chairs. The man gave them the key to the minibar and told them there was a decent restaurant next door where they could get breakfast. He told them to give him a call if they had any questions. He clapped Cal on the back and shook his hand. He wished him luck. Then he backed out of the room and disappeared.
"Sí, sí. Asshole speaks English better than I do." Riley dropped his bags onto one of the beds. "Why'd you talk to him like that? I couldn't pin him down on the rate with you being all friendly and making conversation." He kicked the door so it closed with a slam and starting unzipping his bags.
Cal looked at Riley's bags. "You didn't tell me you were moving down here."
Cal looked around the room, then sat down on the other bed. Riley began sorting through his bags, pulling out piles of clothes and gear.
"I'm gonna have a shower."
Riley yanked out some shower things and threw them onto the bed. He hummed to himself, some tune from the radio. He paused and looked up at Cal.
"By the way why didn't you tell him?"
"Tell him what?"
"That you were fighting Rivera."
"Oh," Cal said. "I don't know. I was embarrassed."
"Embarrassed? You?" Riley snorted.
"The guy thought he knew about fighting."
"He didn't know shit about fighting."
"He wanted to shake my hand," Cal said.
Riley waved a shampoo bottle at Cal. "Well, he's gonna feel like a real fucking idiot once he finds out who you are. The guy who took his boy Rivera the distance." He disappeared into the bathroom.
"That was four years ago," Cal called out after him. "Nobody remembers that shit anymore."
Riley slammed the bathroom door shut. Cal sighed. He stretched out on the bed, hands folded behind his head. He kept his eyes open and he listened to the sound of the showerhead. When Riley came out of the bathroom, he was in the same position, staring up at the ceiling.
Riley sat down on the bed. He looked at Cal as he toweled off his hair. "Well, here we are. Fuck of a drive."
"Yeah. You were right about getting it out of the way."
"What do you feel like eating?"
"I don't know."
"We could try the place next door. Might as well."
Cal nodded. Riley placed his hand on the bedside table, palm down. He cleared his throat and looked around the room.
"I guess it's not so bad. The room."
"It's pretty decent."
They were silent. Riley nodded to Cal.
"How you feeling? You looking forward to it?"
"Sure I'm looking forward to it."
"Well, it's just a little longer."
"Yeah." Cal sat up and ran a hand over his face. "Yeah." He stood up. "Okay. I'll shower, and then let's go eat. I'm feeling pretty hungry."
Riley nodded. He sat for a while after Cal went into the bathroom. Then he stood up and walked over to the window. He pushed the curtains back and stared outside. There was nothing to look at except the parking lot and the motel sign. The letters looked watery and they were blinking unevenly.
"Christ. I don't believe it," he said. "Our first night in Mexico and it's raining." Copyright © 2009 by Katie Kitamura