Songs evoke memories, sure. Every day I listen to music and every day a song reminds me of some earlier self. But twice this week, Lucinda Williams’ great song, “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road” has come on the radio and has brought me back not just to a period, but to an eerily precise time and place.
In August of 1998, I drove my little 4-door Civic from my beloved home in
Cambridge to Lafayette, Indiana, to take my first tenure-track job at Purdue. Driving behind me, in his nicer 4-door darker blue Civic was my boyfriend. As the land got flatter and Boston receded, I could see his terror mounting. Why, I could feel him thinking, have I followed this woman away from the East?
I had found a charming apartment: the top floor of a Victorian house facing a tiny pocket park on the top of a hill. Unfortunately, the prior tenants refused to leave in time. When I called the landlady to insist on our rights, she demurred: “He’s from India,” she explained by way of apology. “I think he’s a rajah!”
Rajah or no, I wanted in to our new apartment, but there was nothing to do. The moving company left our stuff in the garage and our landlady put us up in a vacant apartment a few blocks away. This apartment was a tiny one bedroom in a largely abandoned small apartment building with a distinctly Sunset Boulevard feel. One vacant apartment in the same building had a ballroom with French doors leading to a small garden. Although I’d seen it when I was apartment-hunting and had been momentarily charmed by the faded glamour and the promise of parties to come, in the end, it was too much to live up to. My boyfriend and I had never lived together before, and it seemed like a bad omen to move into a house that reminded me of Miss Havisham.
Nonetheless, there we were, in the very building I had known to avoid, in a tiny furnished apartment, waiting for the rajah and his girlfriend to move out.
Guilty, our landlady had stocked the fridge with cold cuts. I had never seen so many in my life. We had a pound of roast beef, a pound of turkey, a pound of corned beef, a pound of ham, a pound of swiss, and a pound and a half of American, a loaf of bread, some mayonnaise, and a jar of yellow mustard.
No sooner had we arrived, then my boyfriend had to head off on a sad errand: to the Mayo Clinic to be with his family while his dad underwent treatment for the cancer that would kill him a year later. He lived to see us married, but not much more.
Alone with a boombox and pounds and pounds of sliced meat, I spent my days planning my classes and listening to Lucinda Williams on a bulky black boombox:
Can't find a damn thing in this place
Nothing's where I left it before
Set of keys and a dusty suitcase
Car wheels on a gravel road
Child in the backseat about four or five years
Lookin out the window
Little bit of dirt mixed with tears
Car wheels on a gravel road
I wouldn’t want to live through that week again, and I couldn’t have made it without that song.