Dumb Dick Daley
by Gregory Borse
We all gathered on the Kentucky River Bridge at noon on that Sunday. Geoff Jefferson had said that Dumb Dick Daley was going to jump off. Daley had done any number of crazy things in the past to warrant his nickname and he didn’t seem to mind it. So, when we heard that he was going to jump into the Kentucky River, we just took it as another one of his stunts. We’d had a contest in the Carroll County High School lunch room and he’d lost—so, that functioned for us as an answer to the question “Why?” That was the code: you make a promise, you keep it. And a bet or a contest is a kind of promise. And we all knew Daley was too proud to renege.
The contest he lost was a “gross-out” contest. Benny Vories had won it. I don’t remember how it started. Probably like most things, by accident. It had been going on for a couple of weeks. Each day, after we’d all settled at our customary table in the cafeteria, either Dumb Dick or Benny would do something gross with his lunch or tray and the other would pause and then try to top it. Like Dumb Dick picked his nose and wiped the contents next to his mashed potatoes and, after a moment, Benny farted in his own hand and then brought it up to his mouth, paused, took the straw out of his carton of milk, inserted in the little hole at his thumb and index finger and sucked the contents into his mouth. Point to Benny. The winner was determined by our reaction and each contestant built up points as they went along. Harry Reineke kept the score on a back page in his Trigonometry book. If Benny scored a point on a Tuesday, then Dumb Dick got to go first on Wednesday. This gave the previous day’s loser twenty-four hours to come up with something creatively disgusting for his next turn.
On what turned out to be the last day of the contest, Dumb Dick had been out for an orthodontist’s appointment for the first part of the morning and he’d chanced upon a cow that had been hit by a car on Gillock Avenue and had its brains knocked out. He’d scooped them up and brought them to the lunchroom. He’d walked in and dumped them on Vories’ tray, triumphantly. After a moment to process what Daley had done, everyone hooted and hollered and jumped out of their chairs even though half of us didn’t know what the heck it was he’d dumped there.
And then everything got quiet. Kids from nearby tables gathered around. Benny looked at the mess on his tray and then—to our everlasting astonishment—he tucked his paper napkin into his collar and, after a pause, begun to eat, delicately, around the cow-brains. After another shocked moment, our little section of the cafeteria erupted in cries of revulsion and triumph. Kids were jumping up and down, smacking each other on the shoulders, clenching fists and biting knuckles. Mr. Myers, the assistant principal, came running in to see what all the commotion was about. Peter Spivey threw up a little on his lunch tray. Harry Reineke raised Benny’s hand in triumph and while holding it up, leaned over and logged the final point in his Trigonometry book. Everyone cheered. Mr. Myers looked in disbelief at Benny’s tray and said somewhat under his breath, “What in Hells?”
There are no formal rules for a gross-out contest but even Dumb Dick knew it was over. Had Agamemnon been truly honest, he would have conceded to Achilles during the quarrel at the beginning of Homer’s epic. But Dumb Dick wasn’t Agamemnon and stood up and saluted his adversary with a little bow.
Yet, just because he’d honored Benny’s superiority in this particular instance, Dumb Dick was not one to let things go easily, so he decided on his own initiative to shift the ground-rules a bit and dare Benny to jump off the Kentucky River Bridge. Benny wiped his mouth with his paper napkin and politely declined.
“You sure?” Dumb Dick said, smiling.
“Quite,” Benny answered.
“Your funeral,” Dumb Dick said.
But Dumb Dick’s wires weren’t crossed or uncrossed like everyone else’s so he took the challenge to be a dare against himself and considered it would be a stain against his honor had he not gone through with it anyway. He always did have a keen sense of honor. Like I said, Dumb Dick was no Agamemnon.
I’m not saying that we didn’t think he’d do it. And if he had any second thoughts about it, well, the crowd of about forty kids out on the bridge that Sunday sealed it for him. We were lucky, I suppose (or very unlucky) that no one had let it slip to a parent what we were all up to, because though that many kids on the bridge did slow the after- Church traffic going to the Dairy Queen in P=ville (short for Prestonville, a poverty stricken hamlet on the other side of the Kentucky River from downtown Carrollton) our presence didn’t attract the Law. I asked Harry if it was illegal to jump off the bridge as we rode our bikes down from his dad’s veterinary clinic on Highland and he said “It’s got to be!” There were no signs like, “No Jumping off the Bridge” or anything, so I guessed that if Dumb Dick got in trouble a good lawyer could get him out of it on the grounds that there were no signs posted explicitly forbidding what Dumb Dick was about to do and, as maybe the cherry on top of his argument, he could point out to the judge that everyone called him “Dumb Dick” for a reason and laws were generally written for sensible people, so maybe a sign wouldn’t have made much of a difference anyway. In my imaginary scenario, the Judge would look over at the accused and, adjusting his spectacles, nod and dismiss the case.
No one checked the specs, as it were, but by our amateur reckoning it was least 100 feet from the bridge to the water. As Harry and I slowed our bikes where the crowd had gathered on the right side (looking from Carrollton) at the middle of the bridge, I thought, This is crazy. Both the Kentucky River and the Ohio are violent, unforgiving rivers. They are both deep. Not deceptive like the murderous Mississippi—that fools folks into death. No—the Ohio and Kentucky positively snarl “you aint got no chance in these waters” and everyone knows it. A few years prior, a couple of guys thought it would be a good idea to race in row-boats across to Indiana from the Carrollton side. The river is about a half a mile wide there—and there’s no town or anything on the other side. No place to land from the looks of it to me. They were fifteen miles down the river at Madison, Indiana, before they could be rescued. Heck, I saw a Volkswagon Micro-bus floating down the Ohio past the landing behind the buildings of the town square when me and my little brother were down there one Saturday trying to skip rocks in the green-angry froth.
So, we all showed up there on that Sunday. And Dumb Dick showed up too. He walked triumphantly to the middle of the bridge and stripped himself of the wife-beater tank he wore and threw it to SiJean Skaggs before he stepped up on the railing. She caught it like she was a fan of Elvis Presley, hugging it to her perky little breasts and batting her eyes up at Dumb Dick, who looked back down with a confident grin that belied his years.
Dumb Dick grabbed one of the support beams and bent down and removed a shoe, dropping it to the walkway. He turned around and faced away from us and used his bare foot to slip off the other shoe, which fell on the wrong side of the railing and into the river below. Everyone at the railing leaned over on either side of Dumb Dick and watched it flutter for what seemed a very long time before hitting the water. It didn’t make much of a splash and the swift current moved it toward the Ohio River at a very swift pace about forty feet before we lost track of it.
With that, Dumb Dick half twisted his body toward the crowd behind him and lifted his right hand to his forehead and did a little whirley-gig with it as he bowed, as if he were a Medieval Knight giving his regards to his Lady before mounting up in a jousting contest. Then, he turned to face the Ohio River and spread his feet about shoulder-length apart. He stretched out his arms parallel to the railing upon which he stood and everyone seemed to hold their collective breath. A hollowed out kind of feeling, like when your Dad hits a dip in the road and you are in the back seat and you weren’t expecting it, formed in the pit of my stomach and it fluttered there. It was the same feeling I’d felt the first time I would see a woman as the object of my own sexual desire. (That would be, if you must know, Chrissy Hynde of The Pretenders, performing “Brass in Pocket” on Saturday Night Live).
Everyone’s gaze was transfixed on Dumb Dick.
In that moment, Dumb Dick was the picture of that combination of bravery and foolhardiness that is one of the gifts and curses of youth. Almost imperceptibly, we saw him press the weight of his athletic body down into his feet and then, with a circular motion of both arms, he bent his knees and leapt into the air. For a moment he just hung there. Then he started to fall in slow motion, going down before the angle of his body could change, just like the cliff divers down in South America that I’d seen in the movies. The crowd that had stood behind him ran up to the blank space in the railing where he’d been and everyone looked down. Dumb Dick had started to nose over so that he was pointed at the water and I thought for a horrified moment that he was planning on trying to go in head first. I had a sick feeling since my Dad had told me that the reason you don’t drive into water rushing across a road—even if it doesn’t seem too deep—is that water weighs 64 pounds per cubic foot. If Dumb Dick didn’t slice into the water perfectly, he’d break his neck. But to my relief, he turned his left shoulder and did a graceful half turn so that he was looking back up at us. I almost thought for a moment that he was going to wave.
But then he did another half-turn and rolled forward in a somersault so that he ended up as straight as a knife, feet together and pointed downward with his hands at his sides. Just before he slipped into the water, almost without a splash, he raised his arms above his head and clasped his hands together as if in fervent prayer. And then he disappeared.
What disturbance his entry caused the river was immediately covered by the myriad surface currents roiling in the muddy water toward the Ohio River—so many, in fact, it was hard for the eye to trace where to look for him to re-surface. You would have thought there would have been a cheer, but everyone just kept gaping, mesmerized, waiting for him to come back up.
But he didn’t.
A bunch of the boys there ran as fast as they could back toward Carrollton. Harry and I watched them for a moment and then tore off after them on our bikes. Some of the girls were already crying. Harry and I took a hard left at the end of the bridge on the Carrollton side and passed the running boys along a dirt path that traced the Kentucky River’s outline to Point Park, at the corner of the Kentucky and Ohio rivers. Harry took the brunt of the branches across the path, so I was spared the scratches he bore for two weeks after. We arrived first. Breathless, we just heaved and watched the water roll. I looked at Harry and he looked at me, neither of us saying anything. We then just looked back out at the brownish-green water. No sign of Dumb Dick.
Later, I imagined that I’d heard a glump when his body disappeared into the water. But there is no way I heard anything. Because water is the beginning of everything and so it is the end everything too, I guess. But no one could have said that then. When Deputy Smith showed up, I heard that Marianne Searcy told him, “He just glumped into the water” like she knew the word I would have used or else everyone imagined the same onomatopoeia. Geoff Jefferson was standing there, so he told us. He has a club foot, so he didn’t run off the bridge with all the other boys. Geoff said,
Deputy Smith said, ‘Glumped?’
Marianne said—'Yeah. We couldn’t really hear it, I reckon. But it was a glump. Like the water swallowed him up.’ She paused then and then she said, ‘Like the opposite as when you came out of your momma’s belly. You know?’
Deputy Smith was writing in his little notebook. Then he stopped. ‘I can’t put that in there. Say. What is your name, anyway?’
“Yeah,” Marianne said. “I don’t guess anyone could. Say it, that is. It’s Marianne.”
Now, I don’t credit Geoff Jefferson with perfect memory, of course. But he was always a really good storyteller. So, his version is the one I’ve accepted as official. Besides, apparently Geoff Jefferson fell in love with Marianne Searcy right then and there. Later they married and had, like, nine kids or something. They live in Montana or Idaho now.
I don’t think Benny ever got over it. He didn’t talk about it, but I think he felt guilty. As if he was the cause. We tried to tell him that Dumb Dick would have jumped off that bridge sooner or later anyway and, strictly speaking, doing a stunt was not really part of any gross-out contest, so Benny shouldn’t feel bad. But Benny was sensitive. Everyone assumed that once he’d graduated high school he’d go into the family funeral home business. But he didn’t. He went to college and then to medical school where he specialized in hair replacement. I heard he was in Cincinnati when he even invented a new kind of technique that entailed embedding a bolt or something in the top of one’s head and then having a variety of hair styles and colors one could affix depending upon the occasion. He never participated in a gross-out contest again, that I heard of. Fact is, I don’t recall we ever had one again. I wonder what whoever inherited Harry’s Trigonometry book thinks those scores recorded there mean.
They put an “In Memory Of” page in the yearbook to commemorate Dumb Dick’s passing. They didn’t put “Dumb Dick” though—but his full name: Richard Allen Daley. They printed “To An Athlete Dying Young” below his picture. His body was never recovered. They had a funeral for him at the Presbyterian Church but there was no graveside service since there wasn’t anything for the family to bury. Technically, he wouldn’t be declared dead for seven years anyway. I kind of thought it would be funny if Dumb Dick miraculously showed up after they dedicated that page to him in the yearbook, kind of like in Tom Sawyer. Maybe make a big entrance at the graduation ceremony. But he didn’t. Sijean Skaggs started a petition to have a plaque with his name and dates on it either affixed to the bridge or down at Point Park, where they have that plaque for Daniel Boone. But she either didn’t get enough signatures or there was some ordinance against it or else the town fathers decided that the sheer incongruity between the heroics of one Daniel Boone and Dumb Dick Daley was too much irony even for the folks of Carrollton, Kentucky.
I don’t know if it was that or if she’d had a secret crush on Dumb Dick that no one knew about, but Sijean Skaggs never did marry. And people who knew her later said that she kept Dumb Dick Daley’s t-shirt in a drawer with her delicates for the rest of her life, right next to the rose-sachet her mother had given to her before she died in the hopes that someday Sijean would marry and carry that with her down the aisle. But she never did. And neither did Dumb Dick.
About the Author
Gregory Borse is an Associate Professor of English & Philosophy at a small campus in a big state University system where he teaches literature, literary theory, philosophy, and film. He's published on World Literature, Russian Epic, Jane Austen, and film. His short story "Joyellen" was recently published at West Trade Review. His is associate editor of The Philological Review, the peer-reviewed literary journal of the Arkansas Philological Association.