72.7 F

Davis, California

Saturday, May 25, 2024

Column: Culture Fiend

He put his dirty fingers deep inside his cheeks and turned them inside out. His giant brown eyes bugged and his teeth glowed shiny white and orange — gold fillings shimmered from the back of his cave and his face loomed large over his crooked body.

He was hunched over a baby, pulling his typical baby-entertaining face — the one that made my one-year-old nephew Dylan cry and my four-year-old niece Claire laugh. He never could make Claire cry, no matter how hard he pulled at her face. She only giggled or screamed, “Papa, you’re so silly.” She cried at his funeral though, when he was stuffed into a too small box for his too huge personality.

She came up to me after the service. Her tiny face, which houses the largest blue eyes I have ever seen, tilted up towards me, and in a conspiratorial tone she whispered, “My papa is gone you know, he died.”

Tony Kast was Jewish. At least he told everyone he was. But when the Jehovah’s Witnesses knocked on the door of our cabin in the woods, he would invite them in. He would ask them to explain the hierarchy of Heaven and would let them leave tiny looseleaf bibles. But more than the free items, he liked arguing with them. “But if God only likes certain folk, how come …” The knockers didn’t stay for long, and soon they stopped leaving pamphlets altogether, forsaking us in the middle of the forest, with no electricity.

To them, Tony was already damned, damned with too much damn curiosity.

I helped him build those wooden stairs, the ones leading to the front door, and he let me sand the bookshelves that held all of our favorite books — Maupassant, Somerset, Tolstoy.

No matter how much he read, there were some things that only a daughter could teach him.

Tall, thin, spectacled Tony didn’t know that some women shave their pubic hairs. He seemed surprised when I told him. He didn’t know that it isn’t appropriate to piss in a jar rather than stop at a rest area; hell, he didn’t even know that rest areas were called rest areas, he simply knew them as piss spots.

He sat in a kitchen with my mother and I and spoke about how he had only ever met one rape victim, unaware that both women he was addressing were survivors. Rather than ruin his comfortable reality, we let it lie.

He didn’t know to be uncomfortable in the waiting room of our Southern Oregon Planned Parenthood, sitting patiently and chatting with the nurses while hands exchanged birth control pills and condoms in the back.

He didn’t know a lot of things, but he sure knew how to pull a funny face, how to cry at his daughter’s graduation and how to pull the trigger of a .45 Magnum, tight against his front teeth.

When Tony grew up, he swam naked at the YMCA, he rode motorcycles across California, ate matzah and had sex for the very first time on his wedding night. Four children and various Polaroid pictures of him passed out on the couch, his arms wrapped around his first wife, are all that’s left of his life before me.

He tells me that she was an alcoholic. “Drank three fingers a day,” he would exclaim, almost proudly. Even though they had divorced 30 years before, he still kept his wedding band on his keyring, and when he was stressed he would rub it — between his half-thumb, a nub created in a skill saw accident, and his forefinger.

The gold wore thin, and after the funeral when his kids tried to loot the cabin, it was nowhere to be found. We had to pry open the safe, next to where his favorite gun or at least a note should have been, to find the wan band sitting alone on the shelf.

Tony Kast was a man, a 67-year-old Jew, who built our log cabin with two incomplete rough hands and later stuck those same fingers in his sloppy wet mouth.

If you would like to hear more stories of her father, email KATELYN RINGROSE at knringrose@ucdavis.edu.


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