After six and a half months of searching for the key together, Mr. Black tells Oskar that he is finished, which makes Oskar feel incredibly lonely. Oskar goes up to Grandma’s apartment, but Grandma isn’t there. It’s the first time that Oskar has been in Grandma’s apartment without her. He begins to search around and finds a drawer filled with envelopes organized chronologically and mailed from Dresden. There’s a letter from every day from May 31, 1963 to “the worst day” (that is, September 11, 2001). Some are addressed “To my unborn child” and some “To my child.” Oskar starts opening the envelopes, and all of them are empty.
When Mr. Black leaves the expedition, Oskar is right back where he started, yet it feels so different: when he didn’t know there was an option besides searching alone, he didn’t realize he was lacking anything. But now, he feels like he’s lost something he didn’t know he was going to need. When Oskar goes to Grandma’s house, searching for some companionship, he instead finds empty envelopes where there should be letters, and again feels a loss for something he didn’t know existed. Again and again the novel creates powerful images of attempted but failed communication (a state that the novel seems to suggest is the natural state of all people, who are always failing to communicate with others in some way), and yet these failures do manage to communicate at least a form of love.
Oskar hears a sound coming from the guest room and realizes that it must be the renter. An old man (Grandpa, although Oskar doesn’t know it yet) opens the guest room door. The man brings out a notebook and writes on the first page, “I don’t speak.” When Oskar asks who he is, the old man writes that his name is Thomas, just like Oskar’s Dad. Oskar gives the old man his card.
When Oskar meets Grandpa, Grandpa doesn’t tell him how they’re related: perhaps to spare both of them the pain of both connection and loss. Oskar realizes that the renter has the same first name as Dad, thus linking them in his mind but he doesn’t make the immediate assumption that they are related.
Oskar stands in the hall, and Grandpa stands in the room: “The door was open, but it felt like there was an invisible door between us.” The old man shows Oskar the YES and NO tattooed on his hands. Eventually, Oskar goes into the guest room.
The door that Oskar feels between himself and the renter gives another significance to the images of the doorknobs in the text. When Oskar crosses the threshold into the guest room, they begin to connect.
Oskar decides to tell the old man––that is, Grandpa–– the whole story of his expedition, starting with the broken vase and going through all of the Blacks. Fo Black, who lives in Chinatown, has “I♥NY” stickers and signs all over everything; Fo says that he thought “ny” meant “you.” Oskar talks about Georgia Black, in Staten Island, whose house is a museum of her husband’s life, though her husband is still alive: the house was filled with his memorabilia and photographs, but there is nothing about her. There’s a photograph of the Staten Island Ferry in the chapter: Oskar had been very scared to travel on the ferry. Oskar describes some of the other Blacks, including Nancy Black, a barista, and Ray Black, who is behind bars, so Oskar writes him a letter.
Even though Oskar doesn’t know who the renter is, he is ready to accept him as a father figure: his relationship with Mr. Black as well as his ability to open up to other people throughout the course of his expedition has given him the ability to share his story and unlock some of his feelings to the renter. Crossing the Staten Island Ferry represents another one of Oskar’s fears that he had to conquer to continue on his quest. Oskar’s desire to find the lock to fit the key overrides his smaller anxieties.
Then, Oskar describes Ruth Black, whose address is the eighty-sixth floor of the Empire State Building. Oskar is very panicky to get on the elevator, but Mr. Black just says that that that’s okay, so Oskar has nothing to argue against, and eventually, he makes it up. When they’re on the observation deck, Oskar imagines a plane flying into the building, just below them. But eventually, he looks at the different views of New York through the binoculars: “It’s like New York is a miniature replica of New York.” There’s a picture of the binoculars with shadows in the glass of the other people on the observation deck.
At the beginning of the chapter, Oskar says that Mr. Black has quit the quest, but he doesn’t tell us why until he tells Grandpa the story. Many of the important events of the novel occur in this way: the consequence is told, but the why and how is not revealed until much later. Here, Jonathan Safran Foer frames the flashback of Ruth on the Empire State Building within the story of the expedition as Oskar relays it to the renter, not at the same time as Oskar is living it.
Oskar has no idea who Ruth might be, but he has a hunch when he sees an old woman holding a clipboard. He asks her for her name, and it’s Ruth. Ruth gives Oskar and Mr. Black a tour, recounting the history of the Empire State Building: she describes its architecture, gives statistics about its structure, and tells them several cultural facts about the building. When the official tour ends, Ruth gives them an extended history—she knows practically everything there is to know about the Empire State Building.
Just as Mr. Black has been living an extremely full life, even though he’s been in his apartment for decades, Ruth has been living an extremely full life, even though she’s been in exactly the same space for decades. Ruth knows about every nook and cranny of the Empire State Building, just as Mr. Black knows every story behind the many mementoes that fill his apartment.
Mr. Black gets down on his knees and asks Ruth on a date. She says that she stays in the building always: she has lived in a storage room up there since her husband died. Her husband, one day, had found a spotlight in a store and occasionally beamed it across the skyline of New York so that you could see it from the Empire State Building; there’s a photograph of this effect in the chapter. When her husband died, Ruth came to the observation deck to look for him, and then could never bear to go home. Mr. Black says that that’s okay—he’ll come up to the observation deck to spend the afternoon with her.
Ruth Black, just like Mr. Black, has stayed in one place because she is still waiting for her husband, even though he’s dead: she doesn’t want to emerge into the real world, where she might feel his loss more profoundly. Magical thinking is a key component of how many characters in the novel relate to the dead: Mr. Black nails a nail every day to a tree to commemorate his wife’s death; Oskar keeps his Dad’s voice on the answering machine in his closet; Grandpa writes letters to his unborn son.
When Mr. Black and Oskar return home, Mr. Black tells Oskar that he’s finished searching. Oskar screams an obscenity at him—or, at least, imagines himself doing that—and runs to Grandma’s apartment, where he is now. “I’ve been searching for six months, and I don’t know a single thing I didn’t know six months ago,” Oskar tells the renter (Grandpa).
Mr. Black has finished searching because he’s found something: Ruth, who he plans to visit every afternoon. Oskar frequently expresses his most violent emotions in imagination, rather than in reality: though he is mad enough to scream an obscenity in thought to Mr. Black, he bottles that up inside, like one of his many bruises, and silently holds the pain.
Oskar, surprising himself, runs home and gets the phone with Dad’s messages on it. Oskar plays them for Grandpa. Grandpa suggests (by writing) that maybe Dad had seen somebody inside and ran in to save that person. Oskar wonders if his Dad died on the roof, in a meeting for the family jewelry business. Grandpa asks what Oskar thinks about his grandpa; “I don’t think about him,” replies Oskar.
Oskar usually plans every step he takes far in advance, but his desire to show Grandpa the answering machine surprises himself: it is as though he is finally ready to help lessen his own burden of guilt by letting others help carry some of the load. Grandpa tries to hint obliquely at his identity by asking Oskar about his grandfather, but Oskar doesn’t pick up the hint.
Oskar says that he wants to know how Dad died so he can stop inventing how he died. Oskar says he has found videos of the falling bodies, and he wonders if his Dad could have been one of them. Oskar asks Grandpa to try talking. Grandpa puts his fingers on his throat, and they flutter, but no sound comes out; he points to the phrase “I’m sorry” in his daybook. Oskar takes a photograph of Grandpa’s hands with Grandpa’s camera (Oskar knows that the camera is Grandpa’s, because he’s been using it throughout his expedition, but he doesn’t know he’s taking a picture of Grandpa.) The photograph is in the chapter, spread across two pages, one for each hand.
Oskar thinks that if he knows how his Dad dies, he can assuage some of his guilt, because he can stop imagining the worst: it’s worse to not know what happened and constantly have to live in limbo than to know and to be able to deal with hard, scientific facts. The photograph of Grandpa’s hands spreads across both pages of the novel, giving equal weight to each hand: YES and NO appear to be simultaneously true, creating both the sensations of certainty and uncertainty.
Grandpa writes Oskar a note asking Oskar not to tell Grandma that they’d met. Grandpa also writes that if Oskar ever needs him, he should throw pebbles at the guest room window.
Grandpa doesn’t want to cross the line—both literally and metaphorically—into Grandma’s territory: he wants to proceed carefully and do what she has permitted him to do, rather than overstep rules by having too close a relationship with Oskar.
Oskar tries to sleep, but keeps inventing different ideas, like frozen planes and skyscrapers with moving parts so that they could even have holes in the middle for planes to fly through. Then, he has the idea to dig up Dad’s coffin.
The image of a skyscraper with a hole in the middle for a plane to fly through, in addition to presenting a fantastical solution to reverse-engineer Dad’s death, also echoes the image of the Sixth Borough floating through the ocean with a hole in the center, and to Oskar who feels he has a hole, the absence of his father, in his heart.