A Simple Solution to an Impossible Problem
The chapter begins on the day after Oskar and the renter dug up Thomas Jr.'s grave. On that day, he visited Mr. Black's apartment, to find a realtor there. The realtor told him that Mr. Black was selling his home, and was not there. Curious, Oskar consulted Mr. Black's bibliographic index to find how the old man had described him. On his own card read: "Oskar Schell: Son" (286).
The narrative then backs up in time. Oskar explains how his interest in the lock began to fade after Mr. Black stopped helping him. It had been eight months since he had begun, and he was feeling pessimistic and tired, his father further away than ever before. The only activity that brought him solace was planning to exhume his father's coffin with the renter.
The last person Oskar visited on his quest was Peter Black, who lived in Harlem. He found Peter sitting on his stoop with his infant son. He allowed Oskar to hold the baby, but knew nothing of Oskar's father.
Returning home from that outing, Oskar found his mother and Ron laughing together in the living room. Angry, he walked in the kitchen and decided to listen to the saved messages on the answering machine of the new phone. He had not listened to new messages ever since 09/11. Saved was a message from Abby Black, left eight months earlier, right after he had visited her. She confessed to Oskar that she had not been honest with him about the key, and wanted to help. Then the message cut off.
Oskar returned to Abby’s house She told him that her ex-husband knew about the key, and that she would take Oskar to meet him. She had been dishonest with Oskar because she was angry at her ex-husband that day and wanted to hurt him. When Oskar asked why the message had cut off, she told him that his mother had answered the phone.
This detail sparks a wave of revelation, as Oskar realizes his mother has known about his quest all along. Further, it was obvious that she had been calling the Blacks in advance, asking them to entertain Oskar and to keep tabs on him as he traveled the city. He was both comforted and disturbed by these realizations.
Abby brought Oskar to meet William Black, her ex-husband, at his office. There, Oskar asked William about the key, and William explained that the key opened a safety deposit box. His father, Edmund Black, had passed away several years before, and had written letters to all of his friends and family before he died. Because William and Edmund were estranged, William kept his letter unopened for a long time, and resentfully sold his father's belongings in an estate sale. At the estate sale, Thomas Schell Jr. - Oskar's Dad - had bought the blue vase for his wife as an anniversary present; their anniversary was a week away. That night, William finally read his Edmund's note to discover that his father had left a key to a safety deposit box in the vase that Thomas had bought. Since then, he has tried to find out who bought the vase. At Oskar's request, William then described what he remembered of Thomas.
Oskar was disappointed to learn that the key had nothing to do with his own father, but also relieved that he had finally found some answers. He then told William about his father’s last message on the answering machine. It is a story he has never shared with anyone.
On 09/11, Oskar was let out of school early, but was not told why. When he arrived home, there were five messages on the answering machine, all from his father. Each message revealed more about his father’s state of mind, and Oskar grew progressively more horrified as he watched the images on TV. When the phone rang again at 10:26 am, a shocked Oskar did not answer it. The final message was simply his father asking, “Are you there?” (301). He could hear people crying and glass breaking in the background, and he feared his father knew he was at home and refusing to answer the phone. His father's voice cut off at 10:28am, the same moment the North Tower collapsed.
After telling the story, Oskar left William’s office, and met the renter near the apartment building. He confessed that the key had not led where he had hoped, and they agreed to carry out their plan on Thursday night, the second anniversary of Thomas Jr.'s death.
When Oskar returned home, he found a personalized letter from Stephen Hawking, who invited Oskar to visit him in England and encouraged him to apply his imagination towards scientific ends. Hawking confessed that, though he has spent most of his life observing the universe through his mind, he wishes that he had been a poet. He reminds Oskar that the universe is mostly composed of dark matter, and that life itself depends on the “fragile balance” between what is real and what is imagined (305).
Grandma’s last letter describes her departure for the airport. After Oskar and Thomas Sr. dug up the grave, Thomas returned to the apartment. She had feared he had left her again, and was terrified. Upon his return, he told her that he had buried their apartment key and all the letters he had written to his son in Thomas's grave.
Later, he did leave for the airport. Realizing she did not want him to go, she locked all the doors in windows, packed her typewriter, and taped a note to the window for Oskar. She then went to the airport, where she found Thomas, and from where she is now writing the letter.
She writes to Oskar that she cannot take back all of the mistakes she has made, and has to move forward with her life. She confesses, “I don’t know if I’ve ever loved your grandfather. But I’ve loved not being alone” (309).
She and Thomas agree to stay at the airport, together, neither returning home nor traveling elsewhere. She ends the letter by asking Oskar to tell his mother he loves her.
The anticlimactic revelation about the key is as disappointing to Oskar as it is to the reader. Abby's message serves almost as a deus ex machina, providing convenient information at the moment when the plot has otherwise stalled. Oskar's motivation for listening to the message is unclear and unprovided, suggesting that it is plot, rather than character motivation, which pushes the story forward here.
Nevertheless, this resolution does resonate thematically with the rest of the novel. The recurring theme of miscommunication certain manifests here, as Abby's own issues with her husband led her to mislead Oskar. Further, the scene with Abby leads Oskar to realize that his mother has known about his quest all along. Everything he had thought was secret was in fact not secret, and everything he hoped he was accomplishing was superfluous, since one of the first people he visited (Abby) had the answer.
In other words, poor Oskar’s quest was doomed from the start, leading the reader to question the meaninglessness of the quest itself. The theme of the journey is explored in the text to the point of redundancy, and yet it proves almost tragic.
And yet the journey is anything but tragic and meaningless, since it forced Oskar to accomplish what his father had always hoped: he has learned to better navigate relationships with people, and has opened himself emotionally. In the same way that the Reconnaissance Expedition in Central Park would never have solved any real mystery but was intended to help Oskar grow, so does this journey for the key's lock provide occasion for maturity even if its goal is but a MacGuffin. Oskar might never have discovered objective evidence of the Sixth Borough in Central Park, but his father hoped that he would discover the potential for faith and optimism, and indeed, this is what he discovers in his quest for the key's lock.
As evidence, consider his reaction to William's story. Throughout the novel, his imagined violent responses to others have grown less severe, and here, he does not imagine hurting William, but instead confesses his deepest secret. His story touches on immobility, which resonates with his use of the phrase "heavy boots." From the moment he refused to answer the phone, he worried he could never move forward, never progress any further. And yet though the miles and miles he has walked through the city have not yielded much objective result, he has indeed progressed emotionally. He is able to confront his shame. It is telling that, immediately after this meeting, he makes the final and precise plan to exhume his father's coffin. He is ready to confront the truth, not only that his father is gone but also that he can honor the man's intangible memory nevertheless.
One aspect of the quest that has helped Oskar is learning to empathize with others. And indeed, William's quest has parallels to his own that help explain why this is the moment Oskar confesses his deepest secret. Both William and Oscar long to know more about their fathers. William’s own quest began in earnest after he read his father’s letter (another example of the importance of letter writing/reading in the text), but his search was confounded by 09/11. The centrality of events in their lives can be seen as thematically convenient, but also underscore that Oskar is able to see his own struggles in those of others. He has learned to empathize, rather than simply cut himself off.
That Oskar's quest is simultaneously meaningless and important evokes the sense of Something vs. Nothing, as expressed by his grandparents. This dichotomy continues to resonate in the letter from Stephen Hawking, who speaks of the universe as a "fragile balance" between the real and the imagined. The letter stresses the value of scientific examination, but implicitly warns about avoiding emotional experience for the sake of pure science. In short, life is full of contradictions. And by extension, there are simply often no answers to be found.
Grandma’s final section is written in poetic free verse as she describes her decision to follow Thomas to the airport. She too realizes that the world is full of contradictions, and has finally found a way to make peace with that. She will stay in the epitome of Nothing places (the airport), but hopefully can be warm in the Something of having a partner. That the situation is not ideal is a given. However, she will find a way to make the best of it. Implicitly, she is hoping Oskar can do the same with his own life.
Her parting message is a request that Oskar appreciate his mother. And indeed, though his mother has often been marginalized, she emerges in these chapters as one of the most complicated characters in the novel. He speaks through most of the story as though he entirely understands her: she has moved on from his father, does not care about him, and is self-involved. And yet, in a moment, he discovers that the opposite is true. She has not only been aware of everything he has done, but in fact has made certain that it remained safe and positive for him. Her own confusion is heartbreaking, all the more so because her son cannot understand the complexities of her experience. Where Oskar has thus far insisted on understanding the world through objective facts, she has been concerned with the intangible fluidity of his emotional state. He wants answers; she understands that there are simply no easy answers to a situation as complicated as theirs, outside of trying to love one another as best they can. Considering that she is his remaining parent, this truth will hopefully prove one of the most important towards Oskar's growth even after the novel ends.