Heavy Boots, Heavier Boots
The chapter is entitled "Heavy Boots," which is then scratched out and replaced with "Heavier Boots" (142).
Twelve weekends after the events of his previous chapter, Oskar performed in his school’s abbreviated production of Hamlet, playing the skull of Yorick. There were not enough parts in the play for all of the children, so the teacher added characters so everyone could participate. Oskar had no lines, but stood still as the skull while Hamlet - played by Jimmy Snyder - cried “Alas, poor Yorick!” (142).
On opening night, Oskar was very pleased to see his mother, Ron, Grandma, and many of the people he had met on his quest in the audience. Abby Black sat next to Agnes Black, but they did not know each other or of their connection to Oskar.
His Grandma was the only person to attend every performance, and embarrassed him as she cried or cheered from the back during all the wrong parts. One night, Jimmy Snyder imitated her in front of the cast, and Oskar did not stick up for her. During that night's performance, Oskar fantasized about breaking his silence onstage and beating Jimmy with the papier-mâché skull. Abe Black, another figure from his quest, was in the audience that night as well.
Oskar then recounts what had happened during the previous weeks. Several weekends before, Oskar rode a cab to Coney Island to meet Abe Black. They rode the Cyclone, a famous rollercoaster, despite Oskar’s fear of the ride. Abe did not know anything about Oskar’s dad, and drove him back to Manhattan. Oskar was confused by the offer, since he had not told Abe that he lived there.
Ada Black lived in a very expensive apartment, and claimed she was the “467th richest person in the world” (149). She owned two Picasso paintings and was not ashamed of her wealth, even in face of Oskar‘s socialistic views about wealth distribution. When Oskar tried to exhibit these views by complimenting the African-American maid Gail's name and clothes, Ada suggested his behavior was actually condescending.
The next person on Oskar's list - Mr. Black - lived in his building, in apartment 6A. Stan had never actually seen this man, and told Oskar that ghosts must live there. Mr. Black, an old man with an eye patch and a beret, spoke loudly and read Oskar’s lips because he was partially deaf and his hearing aids were defective.
Mr. Black was extremely eccentric and friendly. He toured Oskar around his apartment, which was filled with curios from around the world, including a sword from Japan, rugs from Iceland, and bullets from every major American conflict of the last century.
He also told Oskar his life story. Mr. Black was born on January 1, 1900, and has lived every day of the twentieth century. He fought in both World Wars as a war correspondent, and has reported in every American war or conflict since. He had traveled extensively, but eventually settled back in New York City to be with his wife. He built their bed from a tree that fell in Central Park. His wife died twenty-four years ago, and he has driven a nail into the bedframe for every day that they have been apart.
Though Mr. Black did not recognize the key or remember Oskar’s father, he checked his biographical index, an extensive card catalog of every person he has ever known or admired, with a descriptive word next to the person's name. For example, Tom Cruise’s card reads “money,” and Elie Wiesel’s reads “war” (157). Oskar’s father was not listed in Mr. Black’s index.
As pigeons flew by the window, Oskar fixed Mr. Black's hearing aids by turning up the volume on them. Mr. Black was astonished at the sounds he had been missing. Although he had not been out of the apartment for twenty-four years, he promised to help Oskar in his quest.
Later that night, Oskar and his mother had a fight about his father’s empty grave; Oskar insisted that the coffin did not contain his father's spirt. He accused his mother of not being there when he got home on 09/11, and she cried. In a book he uses to record his feelings, Oskar downgraded his emotional level from “Extremely Depressed” to “Incredibly Alone” (171). He then asked his mother if she was in love with Ron, and she denied it. When he told her he wishes she had died instead of his dad, she left the room. He tried to apologize through the door, but she did not respond. He fell asleep leaning against the door, and did not wake until she was lifting him back to bed.
He realizes that, in undressing him, she must have seen all the bruises he has given himself. Secretly, he wants her to ask him about them, and to promise that she will not die and leave him alone.
Oskar’s Grandma writes of moving into a new apartment after she was married. They needed more room for their animals. Thomas, her husband, bought an insurance policy and became fixated on taking pictures of everything in the apartment, especially the doorknobs. He got a job at a jewelry store, which he disliked, and later opened his own store in a bad neighborhood, where she worked with him. After work, Thomas would go to the airport to collect discarded magazines that she used to learn more about American culture.
She describes their marriage as built on a mutual need to help one another. For instance, she lied to Thomas about her eyes being crummy so that he would pay attention to her, and used the typewriter even though she knew it was broken. She was comforted by the separation of Something and Nothing Places, though she wondered why anyone would want to make love at all whenever they made love in Nothing Places.
Four years passed, during which time she felt empty. She wanted a child and let herself become pregnant, even though that broke Thomas’s rules. She hid the pregnancy for months, but eventually told him the truth. Partly because of his sadness at the confession, and partly because she felt the weight of his suitcase the next day before he left for the airport, she knew he was leaving her.
She followed him to the airport that day, and watched him ask people for the time. She finally confronted him, and convinced him to return. However, their life together only became more complicated and sad.
Her thoughts turn to her childhood. As the war drew nearer, her father became withdrawn from the family, hiding in his shed filled with books. The evening before the bombing, she had finally decided to write back to the man from the Turkish Prison Camp. She wanted to send a photograph of herself with it, and asked her mother to apply her makeup. It is the last peaceful memory she has of her mother.
Her thoughts then turn to the day her husband actually left her. They sold several pieces of expensive jewelry from the store one day, and he left for the airport the next day. She freed all of their animals, dumping the fish down the drain, opening the birds’ cages, and taking the collars off of the cats and dogs. The animals never returned.
Oskar’s overreaction to negative circumstances bookend his chapter. He is pleased to see audience support at the opening of the school play, but is upset when only his Grandma comes to every performance. Instead of appreciating his Grandma’s devotion, he resents her for drawing attention to herself. Oskar’s violent fantasy of beating Jimmy Snyder with Yorick's skull reveals how deeply his negativity affects him. Though he professes to be a pacifist, his feelings are complicated and brutal. The question is whether Oskar is changing, or whether he is merely imitating a world that he sees as inherently violent and uncertain.
Regardless of the answer, this chapter is definitely filled with death imagery that correlates with Oskar’s current mood. He is frustrated, depressed, and irritated by his surroundings, and no closer to finding the truth of the key after several weeks. The clearest expression of his death fixation is Yorick's skull. He daydreams about making the skull talk (first to embarrass Jimmy Snyder and then to draw praise for his performance). Jimmy is also identified as a bully, which touches on Oskar's inability to distinguish himself at school. Overall, a talking skull is a visceral image of death, and the way Yorick speaks from beyond the grave reveals Oskar's innate hope that the key will unlock his father’s posthumous secrets.
The second circumstance which upsets Oskar in this chapter also utilizes death imagery. His argument with his mother begins with a disagreement over his father's grave. Despite his childish and optimistic hopes that he can solve his father's secret, he expresses a cynical pragmatism in insisting that his father's spirit does not live in an empty grave. One could argue that he simply does not comprehend how such a belief brings comfort to his mother, but one could also argue that he simply feels the need to hurt someone else because he is too confused about his own grief. He cannot see outside himself, which is arguably at the roots of his inability to cope. When his mother cannot come to all of his performances because of work, all it makes him do is remember that she was not home when she arrived there on 09/11. By extension, his greatest guilt - of hearing the messages and not answering the final call - only exists because she was not there (at least in his mind). Ironically, the empirical, pragmatic reality of the day (she couldn't have been home faster than she got there) means nothing to him; only the emotional reality matters.
As a character, Oskar’s mother is often set to the side, usually preoccupied or busy in another room. Of course, this reflects less her actual presence and more the way Oskar, as narrator, sees her. He believes she considers him a nuisance and is uninterested in him. When he later learns how involved she is in facilitating his quest, he must face his ultimate prejudice towards her. The disconnect between his assumptions and the truth arguably provides one of the lessons that help him understand his grief from outside the limited prism of his own suffering.
Mr. Black is introduced in this chapter. Like many of the other characters in the novel, Mr. Black is somewhat eccentric. Though a secondary character, he also offers key insight into the plot and theme. In other words, the quest for the key's lock is taking too long. Mr. Black’s assistance marks a passage of time on the quest, as Oskar lists off each new person (each one stranger than the last) but is no closer to the answer.
Mr. Black in many ways represents the ability to see the world outside of oneself, to see it in its totality. Because of this perspective, he eventually helps Oskar overcome some of his fears, including those of public transportation and ferries. However, as another pseudo-parent destined to disappoint, Mr. Black is soon enough brushed aside and replaced by Oskar’s Grandpa.
Grandma’s narration is more positive in tone. She tells Oskar of her early married life, and the rules that defined her time with Thomas, casting them in a positive light despite their harshness. The curious separation of Somethings and Nothings represent the tone of her marriage, as she intuits the emotional sadness behind them (whereas Thomas takes such sadness for granted). Similarly, the blank pages of her life story reflect a deep sense of self loathing and depression, yet she sees in them a chance to take care of her husband, to make him feel needed.
Ultimately, this repressed optimism, which her marriage forces upon her, lead her to break Thomas's rule and become pregnant. She refuses to take her emptiness for granted. Ultimately, she either has to choose between life or stasis, and she is willing to lose Thomas for the sake of a child. Thus, Grandma and Grandpa are posited as two possible ends for Oskar - in the face of sadness, one can embrace life or lapse into resignation.