Tuesday, April 13, 2010


Elvis is back.

No, not that Elvis. I happen to know that the real Elvis is dead as a doornail. And this guy has a real name, a very ordinary name but I nicknamed him “the blonde Elvis” years ago and the name stuck, providing Beaven and I with our own shorthand. His distinctive characteristic the day we met him was his blonde hair combed into the pompadour style Elvis made popular in the ‘50s. 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 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.

That’s about where any resemblance ends and he has even changed his hairstyle now so there’s nothing at all to remind you of the real Elvis. But the name has stuck. Anytime we need out dirt moved around out here in paradise we end up saying, “It’s time to call Elvis.” We decided to put in a carport after losing two front windshields to tree limbs about a month apart. But we needed some dirt first.

He has a long history with our house. When we dug a pond years ago Elvis was the guy who took a huge mound of dirt out of the ground and moved it a few acres away to a distant corner of our field. We ended up with our own little mountain. Three years later we got tired of the huge pile that was impossible to mow and by then had whole trees growing out of it. So we called him out to level the mountain out. Same dirt, same guy—we just keep moving it around.

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 always seem to have some kind of construction project that involves local talent. So 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.

The first thing Elvis told us when we met him 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 a man’s graveled voice answered. I 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 here in the same 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 this 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 the best stories he told us was 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 not that a train ran over his truck. He was only telling us that he needed us to pay him in cash that day. He was a little low on funds because he needed 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.

One 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 man-talk and scratching and spitting stuff they do together. So we called Elvis and he brought both his bulldozer (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 mellow 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. So he switched over to his big blue backhoe and came to tell Beaven about this. While he smoked another pack of cigarettes they got to scratching and spitting and Beaven happened to ask him if he knew “a good septic tank man.”

He asked Beaven 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. This was years ago when we were in a drought. 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’ve had other guys come move dirt around for us. We eventually got the aerobic septic tank Beaven wanted and the guys who came to put it in were so clean and tidy it just wasn’t any fun except for when they shot a snake in the creek.

I promised a few of you an update on the bird sitting on a nest under our front eaves. Here’s a picture of the nest.
She’s been sitting there about a week. She only flies away when we come in or out the front door. I don’t know if the same bird comes every year but each spring we have the same kind of nest in the same spot. Two years ago I watched the nest with interest. The eggs all hatched and she stayed busy bringing food to them constantly. One day I was standing on the porch wondering what would happen when they started learning to fly. Annie was still a young puppy and loved to play with garden hoses. She had already chewed a couple of them to bits. I could only imagine what she would do to a little bird floundering on the ground.

While I stood there worrying about it, one of the babies flew out of the nest made a small circle around me then swooped under the eaves and then high up into the tall oaks that surround our house. It was such a graceful and effortless maiden flight my heart caught in my throat.

Last year we added a cat to our tribe and I never got to witness a similar “goodbye flight.” In fact, the birds simply disappeared. I never knew what happened. This year, the instant the first egg hatches, Murphy will be locked in the house until the nest empties out.

Now I’m off to New Orleans for a couple of days to check on how things are going. Full report next Wednesday.

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