During the day my father had the appetite of an elderly woman. A single poached egg and a bit of dry toast for breakfast. Lunch, a sliced tomato with a dollop of tuna fish. Later, a monk’s dinner, boiled chicken and stringy broccoli spears. But Pop’s diet belied his physique; he was rhino-shaped, five-foot-eight, sporting Buddha’s belly, and weighing-in at least an eighth of a ton.
The explanation? In the wee hours, house deep in slumber, my Dad ate likeElvis. When I was fifteen I discovered his nocturnal feasts by accident, while sneaking back to my room at 2:00 a.m. after sharing a joint in the park with Dennis Sticka. There was light leaking out the cracks below the door of his workshop, a block garage that doubled as the headquarters for his plumbing business. It sat at the shady edge of the alley, hidden from the house by the wide canopies of three apple trees. I feared thieves were ransacking his Snap-On tool box. But when I peered through a corner of the single window, I saw my Dad transformed. Clad in tight white slacks and a shirt with billowy bell sleeves, he was hopping around like some kind of Riverdancer, his ancient Lloyds 8-track tape player blaring You Ain’t Nothing But A Hound Dog. Pirouetting and shaking his big rump, he simultaneously stuffed a loaf of French bread with peanut butter and banana. For the next hour I watched him gyrate with moves I never thought possible for a guy of his dimensions, flailing an air guitar, his lips curled in that famous Presley sneer. In-between dance steps performed to Elvis’ greatest hits, he would chow down as if it were his last meal: bowls of Rocky Road ice cream slathered with whipped cream, Snickers bars, green olives plunked from a gargantuan tub, then stuffed into his face while he did the twist.
The next week the lights were on again. Dad was dressed in his Sunday gray suit, and what appeared to be tap shoes; his workbench covered by a half-eaten pizza, an empty chicken bucket, and a decimated Sarah Lee cheesecake. Apparently he was in an elegant mood, sipping cheap Chianti, and tap dancing on stained concrete to Dean Martin’s Volaire. His back to the window, he was hoofing-it in front of the Able Plumbing Supply calendar, as if dancing with a scantily-clad Miss February.
Seven days later Pop was soulful, rotating between The Temptations, Marvin Gay, and The Isley Brothers. Decked out in the used tuxedo he’d bought at Goodwill three years earlier when he became an officer in the Knights of Columbus, he now wore it unbuttoned and casual, sans tie, as he swayed to My Girl, and Heard it Through the Grapevine. His Crescent wrench transformed into a microphone, he bowed up and down, then shimmied sideways like a Pip as he mouthed the words. In-between songs he would snack from a big tray of salami and cheese that sat on top of his tool box, or grab a fistful of peanuts from the half-gallon drum next to the stereo, washing it all down with a Great Falls Select beer.
And so it went, my father sneaking to the garage once a week for a dinner and dancing with himself. His musical tastes were surprisingly varied, running the gamut from The Rolling Stones to Tom Jones, his culinary preferences tending towards delicious but very unhealthy.
And I remained a silent observer. Sometimes I considered confronting him, anxious to share his secret with the assurance I’d never tell a soul. One night, as Dad read me the riot act after I was caught stoned and stinking of Budweiser I almost let it slip. “If you can go off to the shop to drink and dance I should be able to have a little fun too,” I almost protested, but luckily contained myself.
I knew the pure joy Dad received from his late night parties, and I couldn’t risk robbing him of the hour or two he dedicated all to himself. My father spent his days unclogging toilets, pulling grimy hairballs out of drains, and dodging rats and spiders while shimmying under houses. When he wasn’t working he was mostly giving. He gave the two smallest fingers on his left hand to the Vietnamese at the Tet Offensive. He gave his wife the little house near Pioneer Park she’d always wanted. He gave his demented old mother unlimited love and a sunny little room in our home. He gave every spare dime to his Kids’ college funds so we could have an experience he could never afford. He gave his evenings and weekends to his family, squiring us to band concerts, basketball games, and Mom’s Zonta Club and church fundraisers. So I figured, if once a week he wanted to party like Elvis, who was I to interfere?
Of course my mother, continually frowning at his expanding waistline, would express her concern. “I just don’t understand it,” she’d shake her head. “You eat like a bird, but you just get bigger and bigger.”
“Guess I just have a slow metabolism,” he’d smile, while patting his rock star belly.