The day after “the renter” (Grandpa) and Oskar dig up Dad’s grave, Oskar goes to Mr. Black’s apartment to tell him what happened, but an unfamiliar woman answers and tells him that she’s selling the apartment, and she doesn’t know what happened to the owner. The woman tells Oskar that contractors and garbage men are about to take everything out of the apartment.
It’s unclear exactly what happened to Mr. Black, but all signs suggest that he has died, since realtors and contractors are unceremoniously getting rid of all the layers and layers of stuff in his apartment. Though, perhaps, he too has moved permanently into the Empire State Building to be with Ruth.
Oskar goes to the index of biographies Mr. Black kept and takes out Mr. Black’s card. He looks in the S-file—he can’t help it—and finds “Oskar Shell: Son”. Oskar wishes he had known that he wasn’t going to see Mr. Black again. Oskar kept searching for the Blacks after Mr. Black left, but it wasn’t the same: he no longer felt like he was moving in the direction of finding out more about Dad.
The first time Oskar had looked in Mr. Black’s biographical index, he was disappointed not to find an entry for his father; now, he’s surprised to find an entry for himself. Oskar’s business card lists at least a dozen identities, but the single word “Son” on Mr. Black’s card for him encapsulates them all. He was a son to his Dad, and he was also a kind of son to Mr. Black.
The last Black Oskar visited was Peter, in Harlem. Peter was sitting on the stoop when Oskar arrived, holding his baby, who is also named Peter. The two Peters make Oskar wonder why he isn’t named Thomas, and why the renter is named Thomas.
The man named Peter with his son, also Peter, mirrors Oskar’s Grandpa, Thomas, and his Dad, Thomas. Oskar starts, subconsciously at least, wondering if there could be any deeper relationship between the renter and his family.
When Oskar comes home that night, he looks at the telephone (the new one, not the old one with his Dad’s messages on it). He hasn’t listened to any messages on the new phone. But now, he presses the Play button, and he hears Abby Black, saying that she might be able to help Oskar with the key. The message had been waiting for Oskar for eight months, but Oskar hasn’t heard it, because he had been too scared to handle the phone or listen to messages.
Oskar’s been too traumatized by the phone since his father called on 9/11 and Oskar didn’t pick up, even when he heard his Dad speaking. However, as it turns out, there’s been a message waiting for him in the phone this entire time, and it’s the key to solving the mystery of the key. Here is another missed connection, but suddenly the connection is made.
Oskar tells Mom that he’s going out, and Mom doesn’t protest, even when Oskar says he’ll be out really late. Oskar takes the subway to Abby Black’s house. There’s a photograph of the house in the chapter; it’s the same photograph as from the first time Oskar visited Abby. The door is open a little, as though Abby knew that he was coming.
Mom’s apparent nonchalance about Oskar’s late-night journey out, as well as the fact that Abby’s door is already open, hint that Mom might know more than she lets on. When Oskar first visited Abby, he walked the whole way; through his expedition, he’s overcome his fear of the subway.
Abby says that her husband knows about the key, but on the day when Oskar had visited eight months ago, she couldn’t tell Oskar about it, because she was having a fight with her husband and wanted to hurt him. Abby tells Oskar that her husband has been looking for Oskar, and says that her husband can explain everything.
If Oskar had asked to meet the husband eight months ago, his expedition would have been over. However, as it turned out, finding the expedition to find the key’s purpose developed into a journey of self-discovery and growth for Oskar. The attempt to connect with his Dad made him connect with many others.
Oskar asks Abby why her message on the answering machine had cut off in the middle, and Abby says that Oskar’s Mom picked up, and she told her the whole story: about Oskar coming to visit, about the key, about Oskar’s mission. All of a sudden, everything makes sense. That’s why Mom never seemed concerned when he went out without explanation, and that’s why it seemed like all the Blacks knew that Oskar was coming: Mom knew what was happening the whole time. “My search was a play that Mom had written, and she knew the ending when I was at the beginning,” thinks Oskar.
The cut-off message has stayed on the answering machine for eight months, even though Mom picked up halfway through, heard Abby’s story, and found out about the expedition. Why did she leave the message on the machine? Mom seems to be leaving this message as a clue for Oskar: this is her way of helping him find his own way on the search. Oskar feels betrayed that Mom knew everything the entire time, but in way by stepping back—a terribly difficult thing to do for a parent—Mom allowed Oskar the space he needed to move forward while still protecting him.
Oskar goes to Abby Black’s husband’s office. The husband, William Black, works on foreign markets, which is why he’s at work on a Sunday night. Oskar asks William if he recognizes Dad’s name, but William says he doesn’t. Oskar describes his first visit to Abby Black, eight months ago, when a man was yelling at Abby. William was the man yelling. There’s a photograph of the back of a man’s head.
William’s work as a stockbroker takes Oskar full circle to the work done in the World Trade Center. The photograph of William Black’s head mirrors the photo that Oskar took of the back of Abby’s head: a portrait of the couple, but without faces.
Oskar shows William the key. William asks Oskar if he found it in a blue vase. William says that he’s spent two years trying to find this key. It’s the key to a safe-deposit box, William tells Oskar: William had found it in his own dad’s closet after his dad had died, in a tall blue vase.
Oskar wasn’t the only one looking for his Dad: William Black, a complete stranger, was trying to find Oskar’s Dad so that he could reconnect with his own father.
William says that his father died two years ago, fairly suddenly: he went to the doctor for a checkup and the doctor told him that he had two more months to live. William wanted to get rid of all his dad’s things, so he had an estate sale. His dad, he said, had spent the last two months of his life writing letters to all his friends and acquaintances to say his goodbyes.
William’s father is another character in the novel who writes or receives letters to connect with people: when William’s father knows he is dying, he writes letters to everyone he knows to share a memory or leave a piece of himself with them.
William goes through his father’s Rolodex and talks to everyone about the letters that his father had sent to each of them: all the letters were different and personal. His father had written him a letter, too, but William couldn’t read it for a few weeks. When he finally did read it, it was very matter-of-fact, more of a business document than a letter. At the end of the letter, William’s father wrote that he left him a key in a blue vase to his safe-deposit box, but by that point, William had already sold all of his father’s belongings—and he had sold the vase to Dad.
William’s father’s Rolodex sounds similar to Mr. Black’s biographical index—both function as a record of the people in these characters’ lives, both major and minor-––except that Mr. Black’s index contains lots of celebrities that Mr. Black never met personally. William had been distant from his father, and the letter from his father just opens up another missed connection, since it directs William to a key that he’d accidentally sold.
William says that Dad had come to the sale on the way home from work and that Dad was planning to give the vase as an anniversary gift to Mom. Oskar wishes that William could remember every tiny detail about Dad. William tried for a long time to find Oskar’s Dad; he even put up posters about it, but since it was the week of September 11, there were posters everywhere. Oskar tells William that Mom put up posters looking for Dad, too, and tells William that Dad died in September 11.
Oskar is soaking in everything he can learn about his own Dad from William’s story about William’s reconnection with his father: the important parts, to Oskar, are the parts in which his Dad’s memory is captured through details. William was searching for Oskar’s Dad to reconnect with his own father at the same time that Oskar’s Mom was searching for Dad: they both put up posters, but the pieces of paper could do nothing to bring back the dead.
William invites Oskar to go with him to the bank to open the box, but Oskar declines: he’s very curious about what’s inside, but he doesn’t want to get confused.
After searching for the key for eight months, Oskar realizes that he doesn’t actually need to see what it opens: the real solution has been the people he’s met along the way.
Oskar tells William that his Dad had left five messages on the answering machine on the morning of September 11, but then he tells William something he’s never told anyone: that his Dad called at 10:26, when Oskar was home. Dad asked “Are you there?” eleven times; the message lasts until 10:28, when the building came down.
Oskar uses the occasion of finding out what the key unlocks to unlock, symbolically, the secret he’s carried around inside him: that he heard his Dad but didn’t pick up the phone. The key, therefore, has served its purpose.
Oskar asks William if he forgives him for not being able to tell anyone about the phone call, and William says that he does. Oskar gives him the key.
Oskar needs forgiveness to feel closure: the quest is not about what the key unlocks, but about being able to forgive himself.
That night, Oskar meets the renter (Grandpa, that is) under the streetlamp to discuss the details of their plan to dig up Dad’s coffin: somehow, they’re much better at concocting these plans than actually carrying them out. Oskar tells Grandpa that he found the lock to the key. Oskar says that he wishes he hadn’t found the lock because now he can’t look for it. Oskar and Grandpa agree to dig up Dad’s grave on the second anniversary of Dad’s death.
Oskar and Grandpa have planned and schemed and plotted, but—like Hamlet—they find that it’s psychologically easier to delay, rather than to act. But finally, once Oskar has found the lock for the key, he finds the momentum to go through the plan of digging up the coffin.
Grandpa gives Oskar a letter. It’s from Stephen Hawking, who thanks Oskar for all the letters that he’s sent over the past two years and invites him to visit for a few days in Cambridge. Oskar had asked in a letter, “What if I never stop inventing?” and Hawking replies, “Maybe you’re not inventing at all.”
Oskar has received several form letters from Stephen Hawking, but this is the first sing that there’s ever been someone else on other end, listening and caring for him. Oskar’s note to Hawking implies Oskar’s worry that he will never be able to escape his frenzied need to “invent” his way out of his guilt and sadness at his father’s death. Hawking’s response seems to suggest that perhaps what Oskar is actually doing is just expressing his love.