Three nights after a federal agent found him trying to hide in a cramped closet with Elian Gonzalez in his arms, Donato Dalrymple sits in his Georgetown hotel room at midnight, ready to talk for hours, his body clock by now like a Vegas lounge singer's.

Oliver North rushed up to him a few hours ago to call him a hero. Some CNBC lovelies sought his attentions and autograph. And just five minutes ago, in a cab coming back from yet another television interview, he heard Howard Stern say his name on the radio. "Howard Stern! Howard Stern!" he is exulting. "It was just too cool," says The Fisherman.

Elian may be gone, but Donato Dalrymple, a k a The Fisherman, is in demand.

"Did you know Elian liked to lick my face?" he asks, apropos of nothing.

The thought hangs there while the phone in his room rings and rings. He ignores it. He wants to talk about Elian licking him, for no moment is more revealing about what Elian Gonzalez has meant to the life of Donato Dalrymple, or about how a child's tragedy can become a middle-aged man's deliverance.

By then, five weeks after he helped pluck Elian out of the Atlantic on Thanksgiving Day, Dalrymple had found what he'd always wanted, and what had always eluded him. He'd walk through the Miami home of Elian's relatives and strangers would reach out to hug him, reverentially calling him The Fisherman, which, the more they said it, came to have a saintly quality.

For many people contemptuous of both the relatives and federal officials, Dalrymple seemed the one pure, likable character in this custody tug-of-war. He'd stroll outside, and TV reporters would scream for interviews. Hordes of Cubans and gringos sought his autograph.

Fisherman. Fisherman. Pescador. Pescador.

The moniker made him sound like a character born of Hemingway, and he looked and sounded the part: broad-shouldered, barrel-chested, salt of the earth, with tattoos covering his arms and a passionate bark to his speech.

But, in fact, he is no fisherman; he cleans houses for a living. Thanksgiving Day was the first time The Cleaner had ever gone fishing. He didn't even want to fish, he admits, but agreed to drive the boat for his cousin, content just to be be out on the water, listening to oldies on the radio. He left it to his cousin to bait the hooks. "My cousin was getting on me," he grouses. "He always does.

The phone rings, and Dalrymple, 40, picks it up. Someone tells him he'll be on "Geraldo" the next day.

"Sure, uh-huh. Great." He hangs up, stands and does a torso bend or two. An avid bodybuilder until the rescue of Elian turned his interests elsewhere, he bears an uncanny resemblance to a young Jack La Lanne, the fitness guru. His 5-foot-7 frame is dominated by his coiffed 'do, which stands straight up, electrified, like Lyle Lovett's.

He has lost his train of thought, now asking whether his visitor wants to see how the Border Patrol agent aimed the gun at his head. "Well, actually it wasn't at my head," he says, grinning, shrugging. "It was right here." He points to a spot below his left shoulder.

He remembers where he was going with this. "Let me tell you the moment when I knew my life had changed," he says, thinking back to an evening shortly after New Year's in the Gonzalez home in Little Havana. He had been lying alongside Elian on the little boy's bed, in the room Elian shared with his cousin Marisleysis, when the big truth struck him: There were few things worse, The Fisherman thought, than living 40 years on this planet and never feeling important. He had been eking out a living and a measure of contentment from mopping and vacuuming other people's houses, but contentment is what you settle for in a life unnoticed, when you walk the streets and feel invisible.

No longer.

He and the boy were on the bed watching "The Lion King," the Disney feature--beloved by Elian--about a brave young lion whose dad had perished. Elian enjoyed imitating the lions licking the cheeks of everybody they liked. Elian put his tongue on Dalrymple's cheek and laughed.

Lick, lick, lick.

Then he placed his head on Dalrymple's big chest. The two of them lay motionless for a while before Elian put his tiny index finger in the man's closed palm.

"You know, I've never felt important in my life," Dalrymple says, his eyes dampening at the memory. "But I felt like the most important man in the world that night. . . . You know, life can be hard. But what the kid went through, and the lives he changed being with him, well, it's hard to explain. He makes people feel important and loved and powerful."

Dalrymple walks over to a Banana Republic bag. He arrived in Washington on Saturday afternoon with just the jeans and olive polo shirt he had on when the Immigration and Naturalization Service grabbed Elian from him. The dirty jeans are now in the Banana Republic bag. He has a new white turtleneck and a cream-colored safari jacket for "Geraldo."

The hotel room, his plane fare, his new clothes--all of it has come through the largess of The Fisherman's new admirers. His mind jumps 1,000 miles, from Elian's bed to the Washington residence of a United States senator.

"Did I tell you that I had dinner with Bob Smith the other night?" he says. "The senator. THAT Bob Smith. . . . It's weird. I'm on the cover of every newspaper and magazine in the world, and I'm hanging out with all these elite people, and it's hard to know what to do. When I'm in Miami, people shout to me, 'Pescador, pescador, don't leave for Washington. We need leaders here.' I hear screams, 'Donato for mayor! Donato for mayor!' I'm flattered; 800,000 Cubans love me. Yeah, I could see myself walking through that door and maybe running for mayor or that lower office, you know, what is it? Commissioner or something?"

Promises and possibilities are what Elian has given him. But at a price.

His cousin Sam Ciancio, the real fisherman that famous day, no longer speaks to him, dismissing him as "a phony, a liar, a Kato Kaelin type--a desperate man looking for publicity and letting himself be used by the Miami relatives, who invited all that trouble in the first place with the government."

"The boy belongs with the father, which--I don't care what Donato says now--is what Donato originally believed," Ciancio said. "He said it to me. He'll flip positions as many times as necessary to get on television and stay in good with the relatives. Dontcha see? This is his big chance."

Ciancio says Dalrymple, during a meeting two weeks ago with Elian's father, told Juan Miguel Gonzalez that "no man or country has the right to keep a boy from his father." On hearing that, Ciancio, an admittedly emotional man, says he lost control of himself and stormed toward his younger cousin; others stepped between the two.

"I was tired of his hypocrisy," Ciancio says now. "I was tired of him flipping positions; I was tired of him using this kid and that family for his own advancement."

The two men, close since their childhood in New York, haven't seen each other since.

For his part, Dalrymple says Ciancio is "jealous and bitter." He is rooting through that Banana Republic bag while musing about his public appeal. "People like it that I'm genuine and sincere, and that I tell it like it is."

He calls himself a "people's person," saying he did overseas Christian missionary work. "I never had any definite plans about what I wanted to do," he says. "I took a lot of things as they came."

He was born in Poughkeepsie to Italian and Scotch-Irish parents, and his earliest years were spent in Hyde Park, not far from Franklin Delano Roosevelt's home. The family later moved to southern Florida, where Dalrymple spent his teenage years wondering "what to do next." After high school there was a stint in the military, some odd jobs, the missionary work, and then his cleaning business.

He says he was married once, and divorced once--and wants to leave it at that. Later, confronted with information to the contrary, he acknowledges there have been four marriages--two to the same woman--and that he is, in fact, married now back home in Lauderhill, Fla. Flustered at being caught dodging the truth, he sounds panicked, then offers that he is ashamed of his marital track record. "I looked for love in all the wrong places," says the fan of oldies tunes.

His bachelor-at-large persona has led to speculation about a relationship with 21-year-old Marisleysis Gonzalez, but he adamantly denies it, saying the only thing they share is a deep love for Elian.

"Why is my personal life relevant here?" he asks angrily. "I'm the savior of a boy."

When his cousin's boat left the docks early Thanksgiving morning, the sky to the north was dark and depressing. To the southeast was brilliant sunshine and an inner tube where a boy waited, not to mention a new life for Donato Dalrymple--fame, cameras, everything that has led to this hotel room.

Sometimes, when a man can't find a purpose, purpose finds him. "I believe I was meant for this in some way," he says.

His cousin fumes that, so desperate is Donato for attention, he asked for the clothes Elian had on when rescued--an orange pair of trousers and shirt. "He wanted to stage a re-creation of the event," says Ciancio. Dalrymple denies it.

But The Fisherman doesn't deny that he summoned TV cameras before showing up at the Gonzalez home two days after the rescue. "The television cameras waited outside for their cue from me while I said hello to the family," he recalls. "I thought it was important that people know about this miracle."

Virtually every day thereafter, for the next five months, he raced from work to the house in Little Havana. Although he speaks very little Spanish, "I'd do things with Elian--go on the swings, watch TV," he says. "When the family had to discuss legal issues with attorneys, they'd sometimes ask me to leave the room."

He was sleeping just 10 feet from Elian on Saturday morning while the family's attorney tried to negotiate a settlement with Attorney General Janet Reno and the Justice Department. "Nobody in the family believed in their wildest dreams that the government would ever come to the house and get Elian," says Dalrymple, who believes the family was always dubious of the government's will to use force. "In January, Reno said the boy belonged to the father, and nothing like a seizure happened. In March, it was supposed to happen and never happened. In April, the boy was still there. So the family felt in their hearts that they had a good leg to stand on. Nobody dreamed the agents would come."

When the feds knocked down the front door, Dalrymple grabbed Elian and ran, desperate to find an escape route, only to hear Associated Press photographer Alan Diaz say: "Sit tight, Donato. There's nowhere to go."

He stood wanly in the closet, awaiting the inevitable, with Elian squeezing his neck and screaming. "We didn't have a hope of hiding," he recalls.

He mutters this while absently picking at a thread on his new blue shirt, the one he wore to church with Lazaro and Marisleysis Gonzalez on Easter and donned again for CNBC's "Hardball" and a Fox taping. The phone is ringing, and he mumbles into a receiver across the room, "I'm doing 'Geraldo' tomorrow. And, yeah, we'll do Andrews again. Definitely Andrews. Gotta do Andrews."

The day before, Dalrymple says, during a van ride to Andrews Air Force Base with the Gonzalez family, he told Marisleysis that she should back off her heated claim that a widely publicized photo of Elian reunited with his father had been doctored. "Let's face the facts," he says he told her. "Elian is smiling in all the pictures they're releasing. It's not doctored."

Marisleysis and Lazaro, her father, tersely agreed, he says. "Maybe if somebody asked her about it in a calm way, she'd correct it," he says. "But, you know, there's pride there and reporters screaming at her and . . . "

He halts in mid-sentence, a cloud crossing his face. One misstatement and he's back to cleaning houses full time. Reinvention is dicey business. "God, I really hope the family doesn't flag me for talking about this and get annoyed," he says.

It is a moment that reveals how precarious it is to be The Fisherman, how tenuous Donato Dalrymple's good fortune remains.

Staff writer April Witt and Metro researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.