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Constructive Conversations In the Driveway

I WAS irritated with Elvis before I even met him. Well, not Elvis exactly. But he was the driver who pulled the backhoe up to my house, one week, two days, and five hours late.

My yard had been torn apart for some construction work, and I had endured countless cancellations by the excavation company that was responsible for putting the piles of dirt back where they belonged. So by the time Elvis pulled up with the backhoe at 1 p.m., instead of the promised 8 a.m., I was feeling a bit cranky.

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I resolved to be reasonable. The delays weren't Elvis's fault, after all. His supervisors just didn't know how to schedule their workload.

``So you're Elvis, the backhoe operator,'' I said, trying to sound congenial.

``That's me,'' Elvis said, looking a little edgy atop his yellow monster. I could see at least three silver teeth in the reluctant smile. He wore one-piece coveralls that snapped up the front, mud-caked construction boots, and a thermal-quilted vest.

After I walked Elvis around the house, explaining what needed to be accomplished, he said, ``There's no way we'll get this done. I don't even have the right equipment rigged up. It'll take me a while to change it.''

I went back inside while Elvis started to pull off the backhoe attachments. He had to remove a jack hammer and replace it with an attachment called a thumper, used to compact the dirt. Five minutes later, I looked outside to see Elvis wrestling with the thumper. The last backhoe operator who'd been here had taken just minutes to switch these parts.

``You need help, Elvis?'' I called out the front door. There was something about Elvis that I liked, a vulnerability about him that urged me to lend a hand.

``Well, I'll get it, I suppose,'' he said with a slow drawl as I walked toward him. Rivers of sweat navigated their way through the folds in his face and neck; his vest was thrown aside, and the coveralls were smeared with grease. His chest heaved with every breath.

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``This piece right here,'' he said, gesturing to the thumper, ``weighs 280 pounds.''

I looked at the two-foot piece of steel. A long metal neck hung like an empty sleeve where it should have connected to the backhoe arm.

``Gosh, I figured 50, 75 pounds maybe!'' I said with appropriate awe.

``No, this baby's some heavy. I shouldn't have to do this myself. They send me out here without the right equipment on, no help.... What do they expect?''

``Let me know how I can help, Elvis.''

``No, you shouldn't have to help. You're a lady,'' he said.

But I insisted, and for the next hour I handed him parts, tools, and a balancing hand from time to time. When I covered my hand with hydraulic grease, Elvis, seeing me look around for a place to wipe it clean, offered me the sleeve of his coverall. He huffed and puffed and tried to attach the equipment from every angle. Still, at 2:30, the thumper sat on the ground, separate from the backhoe.

Elvis straightened up. The sweat was running steadily down his face now; he sighed and shook his head, looking at the thumper with resignation and respect.

``What do you think, Elvis?''

``Geez, I never been to this part of town. This is rich folks' neighborhood,'' was all Elvis had to say.

Staring at my garage, he asked, ``Is that where you keep your cars?''

I felt uneasy, guilty.

``How many cars can you keep in there?'' he asked before I could answer.

``Three,'' I muttered, embarrassed.

``Wooo-ee! I'd say that garage is bigger than my whole house. I live in a little cracker box clear up in Montbello.''

``Gee, Elvis, I feel guilty,'' I said.

``Guilty! No! You should feel good! Get to live in a nice house like this. Yeah, you should feel good!''

``I've always felt guilty about doing well in life. I was really poor growing up,'' I said, surprising myself with my honesty.

``Poor? You don't know poor!'' Elvis said, and I was doubly embarrassed.

``I wish everyone could have the same privileges,'' I said. ``It just doesn't seem fair.''

``No, that wouldn't be very interesting. You gotta have differences. Makes the world interesting. Now my car,'' he said, changing the subject and pointing to a nice-looking red and white Bronco four-wheel drive. ``I've had that since 1986; still runs great.''

``My car's a 1984,'' I said, lamely attempting to equalize our differences, but thinking of the three-car garage where it was parked.

``What do you do?'' Elvis asked suddenly, seeming not to have heard my comment about the car.

``I'm a writer.''

``Geez! I just knew it had something to do with words,'' he said, with a victorious smile.

``Now how did you know that?'' I laughed.

``Words. You're just good with words. I never made any money. Probably why I'm still single.''

``Well, I sure don't make good money with my words,'' I said, but I could tell Elvis wasn't convinced.

``I goin' to turn my life around,'' Elvis said. ``I goin' to make some money and get out. I got a beauty shop up on 23rd. Makes good money. I only have to check in on it once a week or so.'' I smiled at the thought of this rough, burly guy with the silver teeth owning a shop where women get coiffed.

``Well, lady, it's just about quittin' time for me,'' he said, ending our conversation abruptly and heading toward his car.

Elvis had been here for almost two hours, and not an inch of dirt had been moved. I winced at the sight of the crippled backhoe and the clumps of upturned sod.

``Wait a minute,'' I said, but Elvis sauntered across the construction site and jumped the split-rail fence. The next day, the backhoe company sent someone new to finish the job.

I never saw Elvis again.

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