#455: Los Lobos, "How Will the Wolf Survive?" (1984)

Maybe there was such a thing as pure lust. Ally’s heart had been broken and she would never love again—never!—but there was no getting around the almost surreal fineness of Tito, the grill guy at Burger King, where she worked. He was tall and thin with black almond-shaped eyes, long eyelashes, and a long thin nose. His hair, suppressed under his BK hat, was black and wavy. He had a perfect ass and the way his forearms rippled when he flipped the burgers made Ally understand the cliché about going “weak in the knees.”

He didn’t talk to anyone much and was two years older than her—he should have been a senior but had dropped out of high school the year before, gotten a GED and was now taking some classes at a community college. He called her Little White Girl when he talked to her, which wasn’t often until she figured out his weak spot, which was a white cassette tape that he kept every day tucked into the back pocket of his black work pants. She spent a fair amount of time staring at that particular spot and one day she made out the lettering across the top of the tape: SLASH.

“SLASH Records?” she said, jamming a bunch of medium lids into the medium lid holder.

It was her first night to close, her first night to see him take off his brown and orange polyester work shirt to reveal a gray T-shirt with the arms cut out down to the waist so that she could see the muscles all the way up his arms and the way his ribs gave way to stomach muscles that actually rippled—they rippled!—under his soft brown skin when he poured hot water over the grill and pulled the water down the surface and into the drain with a steel squeegee. He stopped and glanced over at her. “What?”

“Your tape says SLASH. That’s rad. X is on that label, and the Germs and the Blasters. What’s the tape? Violent Femmes? Del Fuegos?”

He pulled it out of his back pocket and rounded the corner to the manager’s office.  She heard Monique yell at him, but he returned with a tiny boom box that he plugged in and set atop one of the fryers. “Los Lobos,” he said, popping in the tape.

“I’ve heard of them,” she said.

“Really?” For the first time, he looked straight at her and took her in, what there was to see. She was exactly what he called her, a little white girl, scrawny and sixteen, barely five feet tall with no boobs, a bad perm, and bad skin. She squirmed under his gaze—he was even hotter when he looked her in the eyes. She had told her friends, Shandra and Meg, about him and they had embarrassed her by coming in last week and leaning over the register to get a look at him on the grill to the left of the front counter. If he’d noticed their giggles, he hadn’t let on. “You know you’re hot when you look good in brown and orange polyester,” Shandra said, while Ally, mortified, had shushed her and begged them to leave.

“It’s so weird the way they put SLASH and SST records in the import section—I buy anything on those labels. I’ve looked at How Will the Wolf Survive? a couple of times.”

“Well, now you can check it out.” He hit play and a straight-ahead, thumping groove spilled into the room. Tito’s right foot tapped as he scoured the grill. The chorus reassured her,“Don’t worry baby, it’s going to work out fine.” A positive sentiment? She wasn’t used to hearing anything like that, and since the lead singer’s buttery, amber voice immediately ventriloquized Tito for her, she pretended that sweet, comforting line was Tito himself taking an interest in her well-being, even thought she knew it wasn’t true.

Los Lobos were MUSICIANS, like, for real. It was no part attitude, no part fashion, it was all music, and as the tape played on, its sound tinny and small on the cheap boom box sitting on the fryer, she grew quietly impressed with the band’s range. There was pure rock, some country stuff, bluesy stuff, even mariachi music. They sang in English and Spanish. They rocked out with an accordion—an accordion—which seemed like the aural equivalent of Tito looking hot in brown and orange polyester. By the time she Windexed the windows, she had given in to a little hip sway.

“You like it, huh?” Tito grinned at her. He was even hotter when he smiled. “Imagine it on a good stereo system,” he said. “What would that be like?”

She gave him a thumbs up, her stomach flipping too hard for her to trust herself with speech.

That night, after they hit the lights and headed out the side door, with Monique griping at them about food costs, Tito, wearing a black motorcycle jacket, walked over to a brand-new red 1985 Z-28 that had been parked in the side lot for almost a week. He peered in the windows.

“It’s so weird he hasn’t come back,” she said. She had watched the Z’s owner, a guy in his twenties who had just ordered a shake in the drive-thru, jump into a car with a girl and ride away.

“Having a good time, I guess.” Tito strapped his shiny black motorcycle helmet under his chin and walked toward his motorcycle, parked next to her cheap tin can of a car by the back dumpsters. “It’s got a sweet stereo.”

After the restaurant closed the next night, Tito got out his Los Lobos tape again and they listened while they went through their closing duties. They didn’t talk, but she felt enveloped in the music with him. She sat on top of the drive-thru counter while he mopped. At one point, he looked up at her and said, “This one’s about you.”

She nearly stopped breathing. What part, what line? It was about a girl named Evangeline. Was it a compliment or not? As if he knew what she was thinking, he sang out loud the line, “She is the queen of make believe, Evangeline.”

Illustration by Lena Moses-Schmitt

Illustration by Lena Moses-Schmitt

She thought about it and decided he knew she had a crush on him and thought it was cute, the way little girls dreaming of handsome princes is cute. She kicked the stainless steel cabinets with her heels and looked out the drive-thru window at the red car glinting under a streetlight. She would never love again—never!—but if Tito would take her seriously—oh, Tito. It could never work. He was a high school dropout and she was on the honor roll, but his blinding hotness was something she sat in school and looked forward to all day long. She had volunteered to close on the nights he closed just so she could see him in his gray T-shirt with the sleeves cut out. If only she could do something to convince him she wasn’t a child. Then she had a thought, clear and simple as two plus two is four. “We should break into that Z,” she said.

He leaned against his mop and laughed. “You’re a little bandita, huh?”

“You said it has a great stereo.”

He stopped mopping and stared past her, out the window at the shining hood of the car. “You know how to hot-wire a car?”

Ally laughed. “Right.”

“I do,” he said, and gave her a wild, conspiratorial grin that caused her to slide off the counter like her bones had all turned to mush. He drew close to her and whispered, “Tomorrow night, bandita!”

The next night they waited until they saw Monique’s Cutlass disappear into traffic, and then they crossed the lot to the car. Tito pulled out of his jacket an unbent coat hanger and a couple of other mysterious pieces of metal whose purpose she couldn’t visualize. “You keep an eye out,” he said, bending to his task. She stood on the other side of the car and watched the traffic rushing by on the street outside. In the distance, she could see the state capitol, a pump jack lit up on its lawn, bobbing up and down through the night. She was paralyzed with a strange expectation, part fear, part wild joy. In a few minutes, he was in the car. She stayed outside watching until she saw the tail lights come on, then she jumped into the passenger seat. He ejected a tape and set it on the dash. She looked at it. “Gross,” she said. Quiet Riot.  

Los Lobos kicked in and filled the car. Tito fiddled with a magnificently complex-looking equalizer lit up like a spaceship until he had lifted the bass and done something to the treble so that the guitar work came toward them like delicately wrought suspension bridges glowing in the dark air. But something had happened to her the moment she slid into the car. Bandita, she thought. Not me. She was thinking about how Tito knew how to break into and hot-wire a car, how surprisingly unsexy that was, almost as unsexy as being a high school dropout. He smiled in the dark, looking out over the dash at the vacant lot next door. Closer to him than she had ever been, she smelled the animal fat in his clothes and studied his sublime profile. When he turned to look at her, she realized he was about to kiss her. She felt her jaw lock and her throat close. She didn’t want him to—she didn’t know why, but there it was. “I can never love again,” she said out loud.

He hesitated a moment, shaking his head.  Then he popped the tape and stuck it in the inside pocket of his jacket.  They had barely gotten through the first song. He reached down below the steering wheel, feeling for the wires, and the car went dark and still. “We should go,” he said. “I work a double tomorrow.”

—Constance Squires