I’ve got to tell you about Elvis coming to fix our septic tank. Of course it’s not the real Elvis. I happen to know very well that the real Elvis is dead as a doornail. In fact this guy’s name isn’t even Elvis to start with. The man really does have his own name. A very nice WASP-y, easy to pronounce and respectable kind of name. But I’ve called him The Blonde Elvis for so long that Beaven and I sometimes forget his real name. I live in fear that someday I will call him Elvis to his face.
I call him the Blonde Elvis mostly because he has blonde hair and it’s styled in the same 50’s pompadour Elvis had in his prime, complete with the sideburns. He’s definitely not young-- somewhere between 35 and 85; it’s hard to tell with these outdoors men what with the sun and the smokes and the moonshine. He reminds me of Elvis in his country drawl, his down home manner and his stories of going to Las Vegas. He loves to go there to gamble. He saves up a little money and takes Linda (“this old gal I live with”) to Las Vegas where he wins a little money, wins a lot of money, then loses it all and comes home with a good story to tell.
East Texas is full of men like him but this guy just seems to hold all their endearing eccentricities all together in one loveable package. We started a construction project over a year ago and like most projects, it’s grown and moved around like an amoeba changing shapes and moving in directions you didn’t plan to move. Along the way we have met more individual tradesmen than we ever thought we would. Elvis seems to be a composite of them all. They are honest and hard working men. They are skilled in a no nonsense and no-frills way. They are practical and ingenious. And they all smoke like a chimney and want to tell you about their heart attack.
To be real honest, our Elvis is not even a really a good looking man in the way Elvis was but he has a very graceful way of moving. He has to be pretty coordinated cause I’ve seen him do things with a bulldozer that I can’t do with my glasses on.
We met Elvis a couple of years ago when we needed a driveway up to the new barn. He is cheap and easy to work with. Besides, a visit with him is just about the best live entertainment in Wood County.
The first thing he told us between the many cigarettes he smokes is how he had a heart attack a few years back and the doctor told him to quit smoking. Of course he didn’t and even bought a store he christened “The Smoke Shop”. He showed me his card with pride: one side advertises him as a dirt contractor and the reverse side tells me to run by the Smoke Shop to buy my smokes, chews and snuff. He lets Linda, (“this old gal I live with”) run the place to give her something to do with herself. He buys the smokes in Dallas at Sam’s and resells them out there in the country. Last year, after paying taxes and giving Linda a little something, he turned a whopping $7 profit.
I called him at home once and heard a man’s graveled voice but found out I had Linda on the phone. I think Linda has been smoking up the profits herself. But as he says, “it keeps her busy.“
He once confided to Beaven that he has three ex-wives right there in the same tiny little town. He said, “You’ve heard the song ‘All My Exes Live in Texas’? well all MY exes live in Winnsboro.” I wouldn’t think a town that small would be big enough to take on that particular project but maybe they have a club or something. Maybe they even invite Linda to their meetings.
One of my favorite stories to hear him tell is about the day one of his helpers ran into a train with his bulldozer. I spent a few minutes wondering just how anybody can possibly overlook a train then realized that the point of the story was only that he was a little low on funds because he had had to go out and buy a new bulldozer. Elvis takes special pride in the fact that he doesn’t carry insurance on his vehicles. He said that no one was hurt but the train was really beat up. The helper was shouting at the train engineer to look at what he had done to his dozer and the train engineer was shouting back to look at what he had done to his train. They exchanged no more than dirty looks and remounted their respective vehicles, rolling off into the sunset. I don’t know who had to pay for the train.
My favorite experience with Elvis was the year we called him out for some work in our field and he ended up fixing our septic tank. Beaven loves for this guy to come over because it gives him a chance to do all that men talk and scratching and spitting stuff they do together. So we called Elvis and he brought both his bull dozer (the new one) and his backhoe plus his helper, Rusty (not the one who ran into the train.) I think Rusty was in charge of shoveling things. I never saw Rusty use any of the equipment but the shovel.
When they arrived at 10 am it was obvious that Elvis was still a little high from the night before or maybe he had had a six-pack for breakfast. Whatever. As Beaven put it, “he wasn’t feeling any pain.” Right off the bat he got his bulldozer stuck in the mud out in the field. When he drove up on his big blue backhoe to tell Beaven about this they got to scratching and spitting and Beaven happened to ask him if he knew “a good septic tank man.”
Elvis asked right off the bat what county we’re in and was relieved that we’re in the county that doesn’t require a license because he failed his test for the license. Well, this kind of made me a little nervous about the kind of skills or lack thereof that someone who would fail this kind of test would have or not have. But he assured us that he didn’t fail the part about putting in a septic tank. Nosiree, he failed the part with those big scientific words like “biodegradable.” And, to be honest, he did know some numbers that sounded really technical like “3 inches of fall for every 8 ft of pipe.” Technical septic tank terms like that. Just don’t say “biodegradable” to him. The one time I did, he gave me the East Texas version of a dirty look. But they’re so polite here that a dirty look is really quite endearing.
Anyway, here we are in the backyard standing by the offending area that for the last month has smelled slightly “off” mostly because we had to unscrew the lid to the tank so that the toilets would flush properly. We were worried that we were looking at a brand new system. I had nightmares of trying to pay thousands of dollars for the latest “aerobic” septic tank system that I knew Beaven would want. Beaven merely wanted the name of a professional company who might give us a quote. Instead we got Elvis and his backhoe…along with Rusty and his shovel.
Right there in the middle of the technical part of our talk of septic tanks and whatnot Elvis starts the motor on his backhoe and starts gently scraping dirt off the lid. All of this took place a mere inches from my back porch and double kitchen window that I love so dearly. A cigarette dangled from his lips the whole time, which I thought was daring of him considering the alcohol fumes coming from his mouth. But I don’t know why I ever worry about his abilities--I swear the guy could have threaded a needle with this huge machine, sober or not. He and Rusty kept calling out measurements and questioning the size of our tank and looking for the edge of the lid. Finally he popped it off like you might open a beer in church—very gently and quietly, no fuss or fanfare.
I’ll spare you too many details of the inside of my septic tank even though it really wasn’t that unpleasant. But we immediately knew that our problem was tree roots. The trees had been so starved for moisture during this two-year drought that they had grown up, under, around and in between the heavy concrete lid that covered the tank. Then they kept growing around the top of the tank and finally into the lateral lines. Roots were the culprit. They had the pipe plugged up solid. We were so amazed at nature’s resourcefulness that we forgot we were dealing with raw sewage--until Elvis called out to Rusty to move a pipe: His instruction to “Reach in there and pull that pipe out.” was met with an astonished “Huh?” Rusty had reached the limit of what he was assigned to do as the shovel-man. Elvis charged us $50 and gave us far more than our money’s worth in sheer entertainment.
We moved out here permanently last month and decided to have the latest and greatest new septic system installed, the aerobic one Beaven wanted for years. This time we called a terribly professional team with freshly ironed shirts and clean hands. And, except for the time they started shooting snakes in the creek, things were almost too tidy for words. I kinda missed Elvis.