Slackjaw: Zen and the Art of Appliance Repair and Finding Shit

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The note arrived, like clockwork, the week before Thanksgiving. I’m never expecting it, but at the same time I’m never surprised when it shows up with the rest of the e-mail. It always begins the same way: "My brothers and sisters grew up listening to that Tex Johnson and His Six Shooters Christmas album, and I’ve been trying to find it for years…" The note always ends the same way, too: "Do you have any idea where I might find it, or get a tape of it? My brothers and sisters would be thrilled…" The author is always different, but the note is almost word-for-word every time.
Back in 1995, I made passing reference to Tex Johnson’s odd little Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer album. I grew up with it. My family listened to it year round, and I’ve been a little obsessed with it ever since. I even remember what it smelled like. (And if I ever forget, I can always make a trip to Wisconsin and smell it again.)

Since that brief mention seven years ago, I’ve received more notes regarding that damned album than anything else I’ve ever mentioned in a column. It turns out there are a lot of people out there–sad and crazy people–who are just as obsessed with Rudolph as I am. Every November, as the holiday season begins creeping in, I hear from a couple of them, people who’d clearly done an all-but emptyhanded Google search, and in desperation wrote to the one person (me) who seems to have heard of it.

I wish there was a way to get all these people together. Well, I mean, there is of course, given the magic of the Internet, but I’m not going to set it up. Two people sent me reproductions of the cover art to the probably mythical Mr. Johnson’s only other album, Songs of the West (which was released on Diplomat Records in the early 60s). Another woman gave me a heads up a year and a half ago that someone was selling Rudolph on eBay for $35. Others just told me their stories, told me how much they loved it, and wanted to know where they could find a copy, or if I could make them a tape of mine.

It’s charming, in a way. And though I’m almost tempted to dupe my cassette version for these folks, I don’t have the technology at hand to do so, and am not about to let the tape out of my home.

(I used to have the actual album with me in Brooklyn, having spirited it away from my parents’ house one visit. But after they found out where it was, they demanded its immediate return.)

After this latest note, I went back to my apartment with a few of the old songs stuck in my head–"Cheyenne" and "Fum, Fum, Fum"–figuring it was time to pull the ol’ tape out again. Tex Johnson and Stan Rogers produced the only holiday music I will play in my apartment–primarily because both albums are only barely classifiable as "Christmas albums." That Six-Shooters’ album, for instance, is about half Christmas songs, half simple, accordion-driven country/western songs. I’m not kidding about the accordion, either.

Once home, I went over to the stack of tapes where I figured I’d find it, but it wasn’t there. Okay, fine, I thought. After last year, I probably put it back under the bed with dozens of other tapes that weren’t in heavy rotation. I went over to the bed, sat down and slid out the case. It held several hundred cassettes, dating back to the mid-70s. After four careful scans through each title, I still couldn’t find it.

That’s odd, I thought, and began to wonder where in the hell I might’ve stashed it so I’d be sure to be able to find it with ease. I knew I’d done at least that much.

Ahh, I remembered–over on the bookshelf with the second-tier tapes. I shoved the case back under the bed, pushed myself back to my feet and trotted over to the bookcase. I flicked on the light, moved some shit around and began poring through the stacks–awful live Pistols bootlegs, bad soundtracks, the mighty Wurlitzer–but no Tex Johnson. That’s about when I started to panic. There’s something fundamentally comforting about having that tape within easy reach. It’s one of only a small handful of musical recordings that, without fail, will lighten my mood whenever I listen to it. If it was gone, well…Christ, it couldn’t be gone.

I sat at the kitchen table and had a cigarette, trying to calm myself down. Failing that, I stood again and rechecked the three spots I’d just searched, with the same result.

At the same time that this was happening, I was also dealing with a dead oven. The burners on top worked just fine, but the oven’s electric pilot light was on the fritz. Last time that happened, I called the landlord, who sent over a handyman who, in the span of approximately 90 seconds, was able to tell me that I was dealing with a blown fuse in that particular outlet, that was all. This time around, that was the first thing I checked. It wasn’t the fuse. It seemed I really had burnt out the pilot light after, what, 11 years or so. I didn’t want to call my landlord on a holiday with something so trivial. I figured I’d subsist on sandwiches for the next couple days, then call her. That was easy enough. No big deal.

This Tex Johnson business, though–this was a big deal. It was doubly frustrating in that I’d been losing more and more things around the apartment lately. Things I really wanted to find. Things I was sure–well, pretty sure at least–were around somewhere, but I simply couldn’t find them. It’s not that my place is so cluttered–it isn’t. I need to keep things in some sense of order so as to be able to, well, find things when I need them. So this was pissing me off.

If all else failed, I could call my folks and ask them to make me another copy, but that was always kind of an ordeal. What Morgan and I were discussing in the midst of all this–a point she brought up–is that my dad was in the Air Force. He was a KC-135 boom operator over Korea–a very technical job–but he was absolutely lost when it came to things like "taping an album."

That would have to remain an absolute last resort.

When I went to bed that night, the location of that tape was still nagging at me.

The next morning, I undertook a massive top-to-bottom search of the apartment. I pulled crates away from walls, crawled beneath the bed with a flashlight, was curled up under the desk with the same flashlight, pawing the mass of wires behind the stereo to see if the cassette had been snagged back there somehow. And again and again, I scoured those three original, logical spots. Eyes being what they are, I figured, chances are good I might’ve just overlooked it. This time I removed every tape in turn, opened the case and checked inside. Still nothing.

Though I didn’t find the Tex Johnson tape, I did find several other lost items–a catnip-stuffed sausage that had been Guy’s favorite for years. I’d thrown it away once, after it became too filthy–but it seems he’d dragged it back out of the trashcan while I wasn’t looking and hid it behind a crate in the front room. I found a few books I never knew I owned. A few recordings I had forgotten about. So it was a productive venture–as the Buddhists say, the journey is more important than reaching your destination. But fuck that–I wanted my goddamn Tex Johnson tape. All these other discoveries were cold and hollow in comparison.

That afternoon, I decided I’d call the landlord about the oven. Might as well get at least one damn thing accomplished, I figured. Before I called her, though, I twisted the knob on the stove top, just to make sure. I wouldn’t want her to send the handyman over for nothing again. He always makes fun of me.

I sat at the kitchen table and lit another cigarette. That’s when I heard the soft "whoompf" behind me.

That fucker, I thought. I hadn’t touched the thing in two or three days, after taking three days in a row prior to that to fiddle and toy with it. That three days of fiddling and getting loopy on the gas had been to no effect whatsoever, so I’d given up, let it be, out of fear I’d blow half the block to hell.

Now, for no apparent reason, just moments before I was going to call the landlord, it decides to work again.

It had happened before. Every couple years the fucking stove plays possum on me for a few days. Gets me all riled up then starts working again. Goddamn sentient machines.

At least it saved me a phone call.

Not long afterward, I decided that the Tex Johnson tape was a lost cause, so I settled for something else and tried my best to forget about it. Went about my business, and that night went to bed feeling only slightly frustrated.

The next morning, I puttered about the apartment, moving piles of things around, wiping up sputum, taking a knife to a plant that was beginning to make me nervous. Then, for reasons I can’t say, I sat down in the middle of the living room floor. It seemed as good a place as any to sit, I guess. That’s when something caught my eye. A flash of yellow from under the bed. I knew immediately what it was, and knew immediately that the whole goddamn apartment had been playing possum.

I slid the crate of tapes out from beneath the bed again, and plucked out the Tex Johnson cassette, which was right there–which had always been right there–at the top.

Yeah, screw that business about the journey and destination. The lesson to be learned here, I guess, is that the best way to accomplish what you want is to completely give up all hope of ever accomplishing it. But there’s nothing new in that.

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