Some writers used to drink when the words didn’t come. Now we have the internet. Whenever I get stuck writing, instead of sliding open the bottom drawer with the whiskey bottle, I load up The New York Times or Politico, check my email, or, when all else fails, start Googling old acquaintances. Most of us have done it. What ever happened to that bucktoothed kid from third grade? There he is, grinning at you from the computer screen—balding, paunchy, mustachioed—and you’re reading about his lake cottage, his wood-turning hobby, his Danube cruise, his grandchildren, his cats.
A few months ago, as I was staring at a wretched chapter I was trying to write, I idly Googled the name “Peter Anderson” and “New Jersey.” Petey was my best friend growing up in Wellesley, Massachusetts, until he moved to New Jersey in seventh grade. But his was a common name, and it returned tens of thousands of hits. Slumped in my chair, continuing to waste time, I tried his mother’s name, his father’s, and his brother’s. There were just too many Andersons, though, and nothing of note surfaced, beyond an old article in The Times of Trenton about a murder. This obviously wasn’t my friend Petey: Dozens of other Peter Andersons in New Jersey were probably alive and well and going about their business.
Petey lived across the brook from me in a white stucco house overlooking a golf course owned by Wellesley College. He was a droll kid with pale orange hair and papery skin through which you could see blue veins. He had a cheerful mother and a silent, raddle-faced alcoholic father. After work, his father parked himself in a wing chair in the living room, shook out the afternoon Boston Herald, and read it while gripping a scotch on the rocks. When he wanted another, he jiggled the empty glass and Mrs. Anderson hurried in with fresh ice and the bottle.
In those days before the curated childhood, Petey and I ran wild, concerning ourselves with knocking on doors and running away, getting chased off the golf course by greenskeepers, playing stickball, making crank calls, and hunting for buried treasure. We dug holes in the woods behind the golf course, hoping to unearth a sack of pine tree shillings from colonial days or gold doubloons from the time when Captain Kidd (so we fantasized) sailed his ship up the Charles River.
One fall day, my mother gave me an empty cookie tin with a picture of a great ship plowing through waves, surrounded by gulls. Petey came over, and I said, “Let’s fill this with treasure and bury it.” We decided to leave it in the ground for 10 years and dig it up when we were 18. The year was 1964.
Petey and I spent hours debating what to put in the tin. The treasure had to be something valuable enough that our grown-up selves would be glad to have it back. We gathered our best things and laid them out on my bed for inspection. Most of them struck us as childish junk, but a few stood out as objects with adult gravitas. I chose a Morgan silver dollar, a coiled-up trilobite fossil, and my finest arrowhead—an ancient beauty flaked out of petrified wood in which you could still see the tree rings. Among Petey’s treasures were a squirrel skull, a miniature brass cannon from the USS Constitution‘s gift shop, and an intricate blob of lead he had made by melting fishing sinkers on the stove and pouring the molten metal into water. It was a method of telling the future, he said. The blob predicted that his life would be one of wealth, success, and happiness.
As we looked over our carefully assembled treasures, they still didn’t seem adequate for a great journey into the future. I had an idea: Why not each write the story of our lives? Whatever else we put in the tin, we knew this would make for good reading, especially if we’d forgotten our childhoods, like most adults we knew.
Every afternoon for several weeks, we gathered in Petey’s living room and labored over legal pads, sharpening and resharpening our pencils until the flakes lay in tiny curls all around us on the carpet. I called my opus “The Story of My Life So Far.” I remember writing about riding horses in Wyoming and living with a Luo family in the African bush, eating ram guts and ugali for supper and listening to the lions roar at night. (I had eccentric parents.) Petey called his “Eight Years Old and Full of Beans,” a title I criticized as corny, but he stuck with it. I didn’t read his story and he didn’t read mine; that would happen 10 years hence.
When we were done, we rolled up the papers, tied them with ribbons, and sealed them with wax. We carefully packed the tin, then wrapped it in layers and layers of duct tape so it would be waterproof. I wondered: When we dug it up, who would we be? What would America look like? Would there be flying cars and men on the moon? Would we all be Reds, as my teacher said was going to happen if people didn’t wake up? Would the world be a cinder from nuclear war? The future was strange, scary, and thrilling to ponder.
The crucial question arose as to where to bury the tin. It had to be a far-off place where anyone could find it; that was part of the excitement. We settled on an abandoned field deep in the woods at the farthest edge of the Wellesley College property. One fine fall day, equipped with a compass, pick, and shovel, Petey and I headed out. The maples had turned scarlet, and the leaves, backlit by the sun, glowed like church glass against a blue sky.
Once at the field, we put down the shovel and pick and scoped out the scene. We decided on a hollow oak as our starting point. Standing at the foot of the oak, I sighted into the field with my compass. Due west, in the middle of the field, stood a cedar sapling. We paced the distance through weeds and grass, picking the cockleburs off our socks: 21 paces. Having established that distance, we then measured nine paces due north.
I sank the shovel into the ground and cut a rectangle in the tough grass. We worked off the turf in a single piece and laid it aside. Wielding the pick, I broke up the dirt while Petey shoveled it out, piling it nearby. In 20 minutes we had prepared a most excellent hole, 2 feet deep, which cut through the upper layer of loam into a stratum of orange clay. We placed the tin inside and snugged it down tight. Petey backfilled the hole and smacked down the dirt with the back of the shovel. We replanted the grass on top, brushed it out with our fingers, and threw the remaining clods of dirt into the woods. A dozen artfully placed autumn leaves completed the picture.
Up to that point in my life, time had given me everything I had; I was now starting to realize it also took things away.
We shook hands and promised to come back in 10 years. I drew a treasure map showing the oak tree, the field, and the cedar tree, with dotted lines indicating the number of paces and directions, leading to where an X marked the spot. I made a copy of the map for Petey and locked mine in a tin safe hidden behind a secret panel in my room. There it remained as the years rolled by.
In seventh grade, Petey moved away to New Jersey. We were both devastated by the separation. We wrote long letters to each other, some so fat they had to be rolled up and mailed in a tube. But over the course of a year, the letters lost weight and became sickly, and finally our friendship passed away peacefully in its sleep. The treasure was almost—but not quite—forgotten.
When I was 16, while rummaging through some old stuff, I found the map still hidden in the safe. I stared at it, thinking of my long-lost pal. We had promised to wait until 1974, but I hadn’t seen Petey in years, and it felt like an eternity had passed since we buried the tin. The years between 8 and 16 are mighty indeed. Since Petey had left, I figured the promises we had made to each other were no longer valid, and I would be justified in digging up the box by myself, two years before its time.
I got a shovel out of the garage and, map in hand, set off. My days of roaming the woods were over, but I still knew the land by heart. When I reached the location of the field, however, I was shocked to discover it no longer existed. It had rejoined the forest, growing into a thicket of red cedars, oaks, and birches.
I found the hollow oak. But when I stood at its base and trained my compass west, I couldn’t identify the cedar tree. There were dozens of cedars of varying sizes, some 10 feet tall or more, clustered in a dense stand. I measured out 21 paces, trying to approximate the length of an 8-year-old’s stride. Pushing through the branches, I arrived at a tree that, because it seemed to be the biggest, might have been the one we used as a landmark. From there, following the compass, I measured nine paces north, halted, and began to dig.
It was hard going, hacking through mats of crisscrossing roots. After a while I hit softer dirt and the digging got easier. Down, down I dug, well into the orange layer, finding nothing. I paced it off again and dug another hole. Nothing. I dug a third, then a fourth. Resentment mingled with a keen sense of loss. Up to that point in my life, time had given me everything I had; I was now starting to realize it also took things away.
Over the years, thoughts of Petey drifted through my mind at random moments. An old friend said he’d heard Petey was cleaning swimming pools somewhere, and that he was gay, but I didn’t get around to digging deeper. That’s where things would have remained, but for the constant temptation of the internet. Now, at 62 years of age, I was frivolously Googling away, trying to find out what someone I knew more than half a century ago was up to, and having no success. And then I remembered a crucial detail: Petey’s middle name was Stark. This was enough to refine the search—and up popped that same article in The Times of Trenton.
On May 2, 2011, the newspaper said, the body of a Peter Anderson was found in a boarding house in Ewing, New Jersey. The man’s hands and feet were bound with packing tape. He had apparently been bludgeoned to death with a hammer. Curiously, Petey’s middle name appeared nowhere in the article. It seemed that the search engine had turned over an arbitrary stone. Still, I was deeply troubled. I couldn’t seem to verify that the murder victim wasn’t Petey. Realizing I wasn’t going to get any work done until I knew for sure, I spent $9.95 on an Intelius search of public records.
It revealed that Peter Stark Anderson, son of Virginia and Perry Anderson, of Hightstown, New Jersey, was deceased, and that the date of his death was May 2, 2011. The murder victim was my friend Petey.
I felt as though I had been suddenly poisoned; my insides seized up. Gripped by a feeling of nausea, I began reading the other stories about the homicide, of which there were half a dozen.
The police had quickly identified a suspect, a man named Robert Horrocks Jr., who had been working as a handyman at the boarding house where Petey lived. Horrocks had fled to Connecticut the night of the killing. His blood-stained clothes were recovered, and he was brought back to New Jersey and charged with murder. At his bail reduction hearing, the newspaper reported, his attorney contended that Horrocks had killed Petey while defending himself in a fight. Horrocks interrupted him and insisted on speaking. The judge, obliging, warned him of his rights. Horrocks then said, “I know I’m guilty of the crime.”
At his sentencing, Horrocks went on to tell the court why he was justified in killing Petey. While doing repairs at the boarding house, he said, he had brought along his girlfriend’s autistic adult son, whom Petey had sexually assaulted. I forced myself to read on, stupefied with disbelief. Horrocks returned weeks later to take revenge. “I did what I had to do,” he reportedly said. “I didn’t mean to kill the guy, but he ended up dying and I’m paying for it. End of story.”
According to The Times, the prosecutor questioned Horrocks’ account. Nobody, she said, could corroborate his story of a sexual assault, including the autistic man himself. Furthermore, the prosecutor continued, Horrocks knew the son had been molested years before by another man. “The story was out there ripe for the picking, and I suspect the defendant latched onto it as a justification,” she said. Horrocks was sentenced to 30 years in prison without possibility of parole.
The story left my mind in a state of complete disorder. As a boy, Petey had been terrified of violence. Being frail and gentle, he was the target of bullying—shoulder bumping (ex-cuse me!), tripping, popping of shirt loops, taunts of “faggot,” and smacking upside the head. He fled from any hint of conflict, usually with a wiseass comment flung over his shoulder, and he could outrun any goofus who took up the chase. I couldn’t begin to fathom the trajectory that brought him from an upper-upper-middle-class home in Wellesley to a cramped boarding house in New Jersey. Details of his life came flickering back into my memory: Petey singing songs to his hamster Gertrude; Petey cradling his dying dog after she’d been hit by a car, even though she was bleeding and peeing all over him; Petey writing silly stories about a magical valley where the animals talked like people; Petey and I burying a treasure.
My feckless Googling had reaped a monstrous reality that I knew was going to haunt me for the rest of my life. I asked myself: Is there something righteous in facing reality, or would it have been better to stay ignorant? A surfeit of ugly knowledge is a feature of our age, a result of the internet carrying to our doorstep, like a tomcat with a dead rat, all manner of brutal information. How many others have flippantly Googled an old friend and discovered something ghastly? This was not knowledge as power; it was knowledge as sorrow.
But I was not done. I had to know what happened. I started digging again. I got contact information for the prosecutor, the public defender, the judge, and the journalist who wrote The Times stories. I got the telephone number, address, and email address of Petey’s brother, living in Massachusetts. I lined up all that information, printed it out, and squared it off on the corner of my desk. It was everything I needed to find the answer. I stared at it for weeks—and then I threw it out. In a world verminous with information, there are some things I just don’t want to know.
A month or two later, when I had at least minimally processed Petey’s murder, I did undertake one final bit of research. Using Google Earth, I looked at the abandoned field where we buried the treasure. It had grown into solid forest—wild, tangled, thick, a small wilderness in suburbia. After 55 years, the tin containing Petey’s life story, my prized arrowhead, and a lying lump of lead is still there, continuing its long, dark journey into the future.
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