A Funny Way to Start a Conversation
In July of 1997, the female relatives of a 5-year-old girl from Delaware, Ohio took revenge on her molester by tying him up, clearing his ass of hair, covering the newly smooth skin with muscle salve and sodomizing him with a cucumber. The act inspired a documentary called The Cucumber Incident.
“Intellectually I think these women should have gone through the legal system,” reads one viewer comment on the film’s trailer. “But of course my gut says ‘Rape all the cho mos with cukes!’”
At the time of The Cucumber Incident, I was living in Delaware, Ohio, renting a dorm room from my university for $5 a day, which I figured I could swing on my department store pay. With most everyone gone for the summer, the building was near-empty. Those of us who stayed were haphazardly slotted into rooms throughout the building. Because of communal bathrooms, guys were on the first floor, women on the second. I assume this arrangement was for safety reasons, since there was no air conditioning and the windows would have to be open.
At peak heat, life on the second floor felt like wading through a bowl of bisque. Even though I didn’t know how to cook, I tried making spaghetti once in the dorm’s basement kitchen because it offered a hit of cool air. The entire basement was dark and still. I stood before the kitchen’s threshold with my arm hairs raised like they were stuck to a balloon and wondered, was I really that hot? Or that hungry? I flipped the light switch hoping it’d end the urge to pee my pants at the drop of a fork. The refrigerator and fluorescent lights hummed in monotone. The ceiling was low and the sunlight distant. I stirred the pasta and checked the door. Stirred and checked. Stirred and checked. As soon as the pasta was soft, I took the stairs two at a time back to my room.
For the rest of the summer, I ate salad.
At the department store in downtown Columbus where I worked, the woman in charge of the schedule was Roxanne. Don’t sing that song to her, by the way – she hates it. None of the other saleswomen liked Roxanne. I did. I could make her smile. When she did, she usually had lipstick on her teeth. It was bright reddish pink. I ended up in the back room with Roxanne once to do a bridal order. Bridal orders were pains in the ass because you had to search far and wide for sizes, call the other stores, listen to the person on the other end roll their eyes, sigh, drop the phone and then wait on hold for eternity only to hear that the person couldn’t find the fucking dress. Repeat. Six times for eight dresses. And we worked on commission – time was money. Roxanne made a peep of a complaint about the bridal order, but she took her job seriously and was determined to emerge from the back room victorious. She must have felt comfortable with me – either that or she just desperately needed a friend – and told me about her boyfriend of twenty years. He didn’t live with her, didn’t even live in Columbus, lived with another woman in Lima, a town I knew well, and was the father of her eleven-year-old daughter. Well, that weekend he was coming to visit – his annual visit – so she and her daughter could spend time with him. She said it was hard for her to be, you know, romantic, with him since she lived in a studio apartment with her daughter. But she and the boyfriend were quiet.
I was twenty at the time, full of anger about all the injustice of the world. I spouted off about this guy, about what a jerk he was. When I asked her why she wasted her life waiting around for him, she said plainly, which was the way she talked, “I can’t help it. I love him.”
Later, when my own boyfriend and I were breaking up for the first of a few times, I went to the department store without my usual supply of jokes and wise cracks. I told Roxanne about the whole mess, sopping tears from the corners of my eyes. She said plainly, “You know, it’s funny. You told me not to live my life for a man and now here you are crying over a man.”
One morning before work, I drove to the local grocery store to buy salad supplies: lettuce, cucumbers, carrots, croutons and some salad dressing. I drove back to the dorm and decided to take a bike ride. I stopped in the student center to check my empty mailbox. At the beginning of the summer, the building’s quiet bothered me, as if I’d dropped in unannounced and caught it in its pajamas. But I’d grown used to it.
I left the student center and got back on my bike. It wasn’t long before I pedaled past the town limits onto country roads. When I returned to the dorm, a car sped into the parking lot behind me. I pulled my keycard from its holder. A man appeared. He smiled and said, “Hi.” He breathed like he’d just finished a run. He seemed to be in a hurry. I felt an itch of discomfort in my neck. He looked out of place, older with a moustache. I told myself he could be someone’s father. Or on campus for one of the many events that took place.
I unlocked the main entry. He rushed to open the door for me, as if we were on a first date. I thanked him and rolled my bike through the door. He walked in behind me. I put my keycard away then gripped the bike’s handles for the ascent up the stairs. The other set of steps lead down to the dark kitchen.
I heard the click of heels above and recognized a fellow student, Nancy. It was a rare occasion to pass someone on the steps. We exchanged hellos. I was about to tell her I didn’t realize she was living there when I felt a pain-pinch in my boob. Then a sweaty, hairy arm dragged across the skin of my shoulder. Tennis shoes squeaked on the tile and the door slammed.
I looked up at Nancy. “He just grabbed my boob!” I said. I dropped my bike and sprinted after him. He sped his car in reverse. I memorized his Tennessee license plate then ran toward the building because I thought he might try to flatten me. The car screeched out of the parking lot, even fishtailed. I repeated the plate number over and over. When I went back into the dorm, my bike tire was still spinning. Nancy was frozen on the steps. I picked up my bike and said again, “That guy just grabbed my boob.”
“I thought he took your wallet,” said Nancy. “It all happened so fast.”
I called the police. Then I called my mom. “Only you would chase after him,” she said, then laughed. I called my sister who asked me what I was wearing. When I went to work later that day, I called my boyfriend from a payphone. I told him the whole story and he paused, not sure of what to make of it. He asked me a few questions, then laughed about me chasing the guy. When I got to the sales desk, I told Roxanne. True to character, she didn’t find it funny.
I filled out a police report. The guy had to return to Ohio to give a statement. A policeman called to follow up with me. What the guy told the police is that he just wanted to talk to me. I interrupted the policeman to say, “Funny way to start a conversation.” We laughed. Then the policeman continued. The guy was passing through town after dropping off his kids at his ex-wife’s in Akron. He followed me home from the grocery store that morning.
“I walked out of the store behind him,” I said. “He was wearing a Homer Simpson T shirt, jean shorts and bright white tennis shoes.”
We joked about what a regular Casanova this guy was. The mood was light. Then the officer waited a moment before he continued. “This guy said he followed you on your bike.” His voice changed from chummy to paternal. “Did you notice anyone following you?”
I searched my memory for the sound of a passing car – the approach, the wake of air, my ponytail lifted. I pictured the country roads where farmhouses were acres apart, ditches deep and the corn that grew thick and high pressed close to the pavement that split it.
“No,” I managed. “I didn’t.”
On July 26, 1997, twenty-year-old Crystal Proctor left home for a run. The next day her body was found in a cornfield outside Springfield, Ohio.
The Clark County Sheriff’s Office lists Crystal as Victim #12 in their database of unsolved cases. According to the coroner, her death was the result of a violent homicide.
About The Writer
Gwen Goodkin was born and raised in Ohio and now lives in San Diego. She has an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia. Her work has been published by The Rumpus and by Reed Magazine, where she won the John Steinbeck Short Story Award.