The chapter opens with a few pages from Grandpa’s daybook, which are phrases he had written to Oskar in the previous chapter: “I don’t speak, I’m sorry”; “My name is Thomas”; “I’m still sorry”. There’s a photograph of a doorknob in the chapter. Grandpa writes to Dad about how he is about to go meet Oskar to dig up Dad’s coffin.
The one-sided conversation that gets preserved in the daybook because Grandpa writes rather than speaks emphasize the guilt and anxiety lying underneath the entire conversation: Grandpa’s entire message to Oskar can be summed up in telling him his name and that he’s “sorry.”
Grandpa tells the story about his arrival in New York, a few days after September 11, 2001. Grandpa gives a note to Grandma’s doorman, and she stands with her palms against the window that night. He continues to send notes asking if she wants to see him again, and she continues to give ambiguous responses, such as “Don’t go away.” Grandpa throws an apple at the window, anticipating that the window will shatter, but the window is open and the apple goes into the apartment. The doorman gives Grandpa a key, but the door is open when he goes up. Grandma tells him that he can only go into the guest room.
Grandma doesn’t invite Grandpa back into her life actively, but she doesn’t turn him away; her ambiguity is its own kind of silence, and he must do the emotional work to come back in. When Grandpa gets the key to go up to the apartment, however, it turns out that Grandma is already ready for him. He doesn’t have to turn the doorknob that might remind him of his trauma (doorknobs trigger his PTSD); rather, he can step right over the threshold.
Grandpa writes about getting off the plane soon after September 11, 2001. He writes in his daybook to the customs agent that he is there “to mourn,” then crosses out “mourn” and writes “try to live.” The guards wonder why he has so many suitcases. Grandpa opens one, and it is filled with papers; he writes that they are letters to his dead son that he was unable to send to him while the son was alive.
Grandpa brings all the letters he’s written to his son but never sent—and now, it’s too late to send them either to his son who died in Dresden or to Dad, who died on September 11, so Grandpa carries these letters as a reminder of what he has lost, what he has failed to communicate, and in the hopes of communicating somehow.
Grandpa calls Grandma on a pay phone, and when she answers, he tries to communicate with her by pressing the numbers on the phone. Grandma says that all she hears is beeps and hangs up. Grandpa tries spelling out words by pressing the numbers that correspond with each letter (love is “5, 6, 8, 3” for example). He then gives about two and a half pages of numbers, with exclamation points and question marks apparently dividing them into phrases, but they’re not translated into anything legible.
The phone offers the promise of connection between people, but for both Dad and Grandpa, the phone becomes a source of missed connections. Dad left voice messages on the morning of 9/11 when no one picked up the phone. Grandpa connects with Grandma, but he cannot talk, and when he tries to communicate through pushing the buttons to represent letters, all he transmits is gibberish.
Grandpa was in a Dresden train station on September 11, 2001, “when I lost everything for the second time.” He passes an electronics store with a grid of televisions, all showing the same images of the buildings, except for one television showing a nature program of a lion eating a flamingo. During the following days and weeks, Grandpa follows the list of the dead; one day, he sees his son’s name, which is also his own name: Thomas Schell, with the phrase, “He leaves behind a wife and a son.” Almost without thinking, Grandpa gets on a plane and goes to Manhattan.
That one lion eating a flamingo in the corner of the display represents the natural order of the world amidst such unnatural chaos: although the lion’s murder appears more visceral and brutal in the image, the terrorist attack is the unnatural, jarring, abnormal event that appears so calm on the rest of the screens. Grandpa sees his own name in the obituaries, which makes it seem for a moment as though he is the one that has been killed.
Grandma lets Grandpa live in the guest room. He finds his daybooks from before he had left: they are in the body of the grandfather clock. He finds many more memories and photographs. Gradually, Grandma visits him, and although the visits aren’t exactly friendly, they start to get longer. Eventually, Grandpa asks Grandma to pose so that he can sculpt her, and she agrees. He hasn’t made any sculptures for forty years, he tells her. The scene becomes erotic.
Saving Grandpa’s daybooks in a clock symbolically suggests the wish to freeze and preserve time: Grandpa’s daybooks represent a record of all the things he said to people every day, and by saving them like a time capsule in the clock, Grandma preserves the past. Gradually, time heals all wounds, and Grandma and Grandpa are closer now, despite their forty years apart, than they ever have been.
The writing throughout the chapter is getting smaller and smaller, because there will never enough pages in the book for Grandpa to tell the whole story, he writes. Grandpa asks Grandma if he can meet Oskar, but she says no; however, she shows him how he can see Oskar through the keyhole in the coat closet.
Grandpa wants to put everything that has happened to him down on paper, but he knows that there isn’t enough paper in the world to replicate and preserve someone’s life completely: for that, you have to rely on other people to carry on the memory. There is no perfect or total way to communicate. There is instead the imperfectness of love and memory and human interaction.
One day, Grandma tells Grandpa about Dad—who is, she says, “Not our son, my son.” Grandma gave Dad the only letter that Grandpa had ever sent and tells Grandpa that Dad had been obsessed with it. Grandpa says that Dad found him once; Dad pretended to be a journalist doing a story about Dresden survivors.
Even though Grandma and Grandpa have grown closer now, there are some wounds that can’t be healed: Grandpa can’t retroactively become a father figure for Dad, because he was absent for Dad’s whole life. Dad did go to meet Grandpa, but they never revealed their identities to each other—they each lied to the other about knowing who the other was, connecting without actually touching, almost connecting.
Grandpa spends most of his time walking around the city, and then he begins to follow Oskar. When Oskar starts going on his expedition, Grandpa follows him; he makes a map of where they had gone, but the map doesn’t seem to make any sense. Grandpa goes up to house, on Staten Island—probably Georgia Black’s house—and knocks on the door after Oskar and Mr. Black leave; the woman tells him that she’s just gotten off the phone with Oskar’s mother and wonders why Grandpa doesn’t know about the key.
As Oskar goes around New York searching for his Dad, Grandpa follows Oskar at a distance: he’s connecting with his grandson from afar as his grandson connects with his Dad from afar. When Grandpa finally approaches one of the Blacks, Georgia, to try and figure out what’s going on, Georgia lets on that Grandpa isn’t the only one following Oskar on his quest: though Oskar might think he’s alone, he’s got a whole invisible support system behind him.
Grandpa goes to a bookstore on the Upper West Side and sees a man whom he thinks is Simon Goldberg. The man gives him a hug and walks away. The writing is getting closer and closer together on the page, and Grandpa writes that he wants an infinitely blank book.
Whether or not the man in the bookstore is actually Simon Goldberg, the encounter provides Grandpa some sense of closure. In Germany, Grandpa had always seen Simon surrounded by books and reading; the man in the same setting allows Grandpa to think that Simon has survived the Holocaust.
One day, Grandpa writes, when Oskar and the old man (Mr. Black) go into the Empire State Building, Grandpa waits for them in the street. The old man later grabs Grandpa by the collar, asks why he’s been following them around, and tells him to leave. Grandpa writes that he is Oskar’s grandfather, and that Oskar doesn’t know he’s following them.
As it turns out, Mr. Black’s quitting of the expedition after the Empire State Building might have another reason behind it besides Ruth: when Mr. Black finds out that Grandpa has been following them, Mr. Black feels like his role has become void. Oskar doesn’t need two caring old men monitoring him, after all, and Mr. Black isn’t his Grandpa.
Grandpa returns to the point in the story when Oskar meets Grandpa, only knowing him as “the renter.” That night, Grandma and Grandpa make love. Later, Oskar throws pebbles at the window. Grandpa goes outside, and Oskar tells Grandpa about his idea to dig up Dad’s grave. The text gets too close to read, eventually crowding into a black square.
Grandpa is writing more and more, as though he will never be finished writing because his life is fuller than what he can preserve on the page. He writes over his own writing, creating an indecipherable black square: cramming everything in means that nothing makes sense.