When Jay was Killed

I had a friend in grade school named Jay. He was one of those quiet, goofy kids who didn’t have too many friends. When the other boys made fun of him, he laughed along with them. If it made him sad, he never let on. We spent the first through third grade together in the same class. The nuns liked to seat us alphabetically, so Jay and I always sat next to each other. Sometimes, the nuns had us exchange test papers with the student next to us and we would go over the answers as a class, marking each question right or wrong with a check or an X. It used to drive me crazy when Jay checked my papers because he always used an orange crayon and made huge checks and X’s next to my very neat answers. I even yelled at him for it once.

Jay and I lived on the same street, my apartment closer to Third Avenue and his above Fourth.  We often walked home from school together along Fourth Avenue where the sidewalks were smooth. Our school book bags had four metal feet on the bottom that were ideal for sliding them along the sidewalk, and a smooth sidewalk was essential to the game of seeing whose bag would go farthest. We parted ways at 69th Street and didn’t see each other again until the next day at school.

Back then, we had school friends and friends on the block. Our school friends were just that. We hung out together at school; but when summer vacation started, we didn’t see each other again until September. After school, weekends, and summer vacations were spent with our friends from the apartment building. Looking back, it seems like a strange arrangement–an inexplicable segregation that meant I never saw Jay during the summer, even though he lived just up the street.

The summer after third grade, during our annual trip to Tappan to visit our cousins, Jay was killed. He had run out into the busy street, chasing a ball, and was hit by a car. This happened in 1972 and parenting was different back then. Nobody sat me down and gently told me what had happened to the kid I’d sat next to every day for three years. The news was conveyed to me as a passing comment, sort of, “Oh, by the way…” It wasn’t until I got back to Brooklyn that I learned the horrible details from the other kids. Jay hadn’t just been hit by a car. The car had run over and crushed his head. I learned that the car was black and the woman driving it said her brakes had failed. Jay had been killed adjacent to his front steps. I wondered if his mother saw it happen or if she saw him lying in the street afterward.

My father clipped the newspaper article and gave it to me to read by myself. They had used Jay’s first communion picture for the article. There was Jay, smiling, his hands clasped as if in prayer, wearing a suit. Reading the article, I found out that Jay was actually his middle name. He had an older sister. I don’t remember anything about his father, even before the accident, and I don’t remember the article mentioning him. I was glad I was away when Jay died. Had I been home, every kid on the block would have run up the street to see what had happened. I might have seen Jay lying mutilated in the street, and I would have remembered every detail.

About a year later, I was in Herman’s Stationery with my mother. Herman’s sold greeting cards, magazines, and school supplies. On the magazine rack, I spotted one of those “true crime” rags. On the cover was a drawing of a woman whose head was about to be run over by the wheel of a car. I turned and walked back to my mother. I never said a word, but I can see that cover plainly even today. I felt sick and scared, but I said nothing because I knew I would receive neither comfort nor sympathy.

Several years later, when I was about 13, I was spending the night at a friend’s apartment. Her mother was out at a bar and we were staying up late, watching a movie.  I think it was called “Lady in a Cage” or something like that. It was about a crippled woman whose home is invaded by a group of thugs who terrorize her for hours. In the end, with the leader of the gang standing behind her, the woman jabbed her knitting needles into his eyes. He stumbled out in the street, screaming, and was promptly run over by a car. The scene ended with him lying in the street, knitting needles sticking out of his eyes, his head next to the wheel of the car. I lost it. I began to feel that sick, scared feeling again, and I sobbed uncontrollably. It was the first time I had shed a tear over Jay. I told my friend what had happened to him. I don’t think I ever spoke about it again after that night.

I was in Brooklyn last year, the first time in many years. I walked with my husband all over the old neighborhood, showing him all the important sites from my childhood. But I still couldn’t look at the spot where Jay died.

To this day, the sight of an orange crayon makes me stop and think of Jay, and I feel guilty for getting so mad at him for marking up my papers with it. I’m sorry I got mad, Jay.


6 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. sourgirlohio
    Oct 13, 2014 @ 14:17:03

    Something like this has a very powerful effect on you, even if you don’t realize it at the time. Thanks for posting.


  2. Helen Pollard
    Oct 13, 2014 @ 18:41:33

    A very moving post.


  3. The Rural Iowegian
    Nov 05, 2014 @ 14:03:25

    Great testimonial to Jay. There are always those who make a great impact in our lives that sometimes we don’t realize until much later. Take a moment and read: http://ruraliowegian.wordpress.com/2013/01/12/so-you-think-youre-having-a-bad-week/


  4. mlrover
    Nov 06, 2014 @ 11:56:31

    This post is extraordinary and will live with me for a long, long time. Remarkable writing.


    • MJ Belko
      Nov 06, 2014 @ 13:35:00

      Thanks. It was tough to write. It started as an exercise in “memory mining” and I realized there were a lot of details tucked away in my memory that I had forgotten over the years.


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