Oskar narrates this chapter. Twelve weekends after visiting Abby Black, Oskar’s class has its first performance of Hamlet, in which he plays Yorick (the skull). Several of the Blacks whom he’s met in the previous weeks are in the audience for opening night; Mom and Grandma come, too. For the following performances, only Grandma comes, and she embarrasses Oskar by laughing and crying at the wrong parts. Oskar pretends to laugh along when his classmate Jimmy Snyder, who plays Hamlet, makes fun of her, but on the inside, he’s ashamed.
Many of the Blacks that Oskar has visited came to support him in the play, which shows Mom’s help behind the scenes—after all, he’d only mentioned the play to Abby, so how would everyone know to come? The Blacks are an unlikely support group for Oskar. In the play, Oskar is Yorick, a skull who functions primarily as a philosophical symbol. Oskar takes the opportunity of being a live person playing the role of a dead one as his chance to observe everyone on stage as well as the audience: it’s his own play within the play.
Oskar imagines an elaborate alternate version of the play in which Yorick wreaks his revenge on Hamlet / Jimmy Snyder, and the audience cheers; in reality, he stays silent.
But acting in the play also gives Oskar the opportunity to stage alternate versions of his life that don’t actually happen, which helps him cope with embarrassment and anger.
Twelve weeks earlier, Oskar had gone to visit Abe Black in Coney Island. He took a cab to get there, but only has enough to cover about a tenth of the cab fare, and he promises to mail the cabbie the money.
New York City seems to operate a little differently for Oskar than for most people. He doesn’t realize the consequences of his actions, or make sensible choices based on his resources; instead, his passion and fear drive him, and yet his openness and need seem to influence other people to do things or accept things they otherwise wouldn’t.
Abe convinces Oskar to ride the Cyclone with him, even though Oskar is terrified. There’s a photograph of the Cyclone in the chapter, depicting a car about to ricochet down a hill in the track.
Abe helps Oskar start to come out of his shell, helping him face his fears. Oskar’s entire expedition is an emotional roller coaster, which the photograph of the Cyclone symbolizes: as Oskar digs further into the quest, it escalates.
Abe drives Oskar to Ada Black’s apartment in Manhattan. Ada tells Oskar that she is the “467th-richest person in the world.” Oskar asks her if she feels guilty about having so much money. She retorts that the Upper West Side isn’t free, and when Oskar asks her how she knows he lives on the Upper West Side, she doesn’t reply.
Ada knows about Oskar because Oskar’s Mom has found out about the expedition at this point. Unbeknownst to Oskar, Mom calls all the Blacks before Oskar visits to tell them about him. Oskar is lying to Mom to protect her; Mom is letting him lie to her in order to protect him.
Oskar tells the maid, Gail, that her uniform is beautiful, but when Gail leaves, Ada tells Oskar that he has made Gail uncomfortable with his compliments. Oskar shows her the key, but she hasn’t seen it before. He gives her his card and she pays for a cab to take him home, where he has received a thank-you note from the American Diabetes Foundation.
The letter from the American Diabetes Foundation proves that Oskar followed through on his promise to himself to make a donation to the Foundation after lying and telling Abby Black that he had diabetes. The note provides a sort of closure for this particular lie—Oskar has paid (literally) for his sins and received forgiveness.
The next Black lives just one floor above Oskar, in 6A. Stan, the doorman, tells Oskar that he’s never seen anyone go in and out of that apartment—just deliveries and trash. Oskar goes up to this apartment, and Mr. Black invites him in. Mr. Black speaks very loudly, and every sentence he says ends in an exclamation point. For example, he tells Oskar, “I was born on January 1, 1900! I lived every day of the twentieth century!”
In the type of coincidence that one couldn’t make up (though, of course, it’s all made up), Oskar’s next Black lives just the floor above. The solution to many problems throughout the book seems to be right in one’s own backyard. Running away isn’t a cure-all—you can’t make everything go away just by pretending it doesn’t exist. But hiding in one place isn’t the answer either.
Mr. Black, who is quite talkative, tells Oskar facts about his life rapid-fire (all ending in exclamation points). Oskar is mesmerized. He thinks Mr. Black’s hands look like a skeleton’s hands, and a photograph of a skeleton’s bony hand is included. Mr. Black’s apartment is filled with memorabilia from the various wars with which he’s been involved as a reporter.
In many ways, Mr. Black is like a really old Oskar: he’s always associating and connecting seemingly random ideas. Death is always on Oskar’s mind, subconsciously if not consciously: when he sees Mr. Black, he has a visceral sensation of Mr. Black’s mortality.
Mr. Black shows Oskar his biographical index: thousands of cards with one word and a one-word biography. For example: “Tom Cruise: money!”; “Eli Weisel: war!” ;“Mick Jagger: money!” The card for himself reads: “A.R. Black: WAR HUSBAND”. Oskar asks if Mr. Black has a card for Thomas Schell, but he doesn’t have one, which gives Oskar “heavy, heavy boots.”
Mr. Black’s biographical index is similar in many way to Oskar’s binder of “Stuff That Happened to Me”: both of them track things and people that they might have only encountered in imagination, or by reading, or secondhand, and include them in a catalog of daily life. The fact that Oskar’s Dad is not in the index makes Oskar feel guilty and afraid that Oskar himself will forget his Dad. It is a record of Dad’s absence, which Oskar can’t face.
Oskar goes to the bathroom and surreptitiously tries the key on several keyholes in the apartment, but none work. Mr. Black has an amazing bed made out of tree parts. He made it for himself and his wife out of a tree in Central Park, he tells Oskar, when he decided to give up war reporting and stay at home. Every night since his wife died, Mr. Black has hammered a nail into the tree bed: there are eight thousand six hundred twenty-nine nails in the bed, which makes it so heavy that it needs a column on the floor below to support it.
Just as Central Park is the heart of Manhattan, Central Park is central to Mr. Black’s memory of his wife and stands at the core of Oskar’s relationship with Dad. This tree also recalls the Greek myth of Baucis and Philemon, two lovers from Greek myth who eventually grow into an intertwined tree, as well as to Odysseus and Penelope, whose bed is likewise made from a tree. Yet where the Baucis and Philemon myth involves eternal togetherness, and Odysseus’s story is one of successfully returning to his wife and their bed, this bed has to symbolize the inevitable alone-ness of life. The nails are also similar to Oskar’s Grandpa’s daybooks, which Grandma kept stored in the grandfather clock.
Oskar’s key is reaching toward the bed: there are so many nails that they are exerting a magnetic pull on the key, and it floats a little bit off his chest.
The key over Oskar’s heart is symbolic of love, and the fact that the key itself is reaching out to Mr. Black symbolizes Oskar’s own emotions.
Oskar finds out that Mr. Black hasn’t left the apartment for twenty-four years, which makes him sad, because Mr. Black must be so lonely. Oskar asks Mr. Black to join him on his search. Oskar explains his mission, and Mr. Black is silent, but it turns out that that’s just because Mr. Black has closed his eyes and turned off his hearing aids.
By helping Mr. Black leave his apartment for the first time since his wife’s death, Oskar is also helping himself escape some of the guilt that has kept him locked inside his own head: by helping Mr. Black open up, Oskar is helping himself open up, too.
Oskar turns on the hearing aids for him. A flock of birds flies by the window, “extremely fast and incredibly close”; there’s a photograph of blurry birds spanning two pages. The hearing aids work, and Mr. Black starts to cry.
This flock of birds is symbolic, but it doesn’t have one specific meaning. The birds that fly too close are reminiscent of the planes crashing into the Twin Towers, but they also represent freedom.
That night, Oskar and his Mom fight as Oskar’s Mom is tucking him into bed. Mom tells him that Dad’s spirit is in his coffin, but Oskar curses at her. Oskar blames his Mom for Dad’s death, and Mom starts crying. I don
Oskar blames Mom for Dad’s death, but really, he blames himself. He needs to have some sort of reason and logic to hold onto, even if the logic is completely illogical, because ineffable chaos is terrifying.
Oskar and Mom start to make up, but the fight escalates when Oskar says that she can’t miss Dad when she is with Ron now. He yells that if he could have chosen, he would have chosen her to die instead of Dad.
Even though she loves Oskar, and even though she tries hard to connect with him, Mom will never be close with Oskar in the same way that Dad was, and both of them know this cruel truth.
Oskar tries to take it back, but Mom is hurt. Eventually, he falls asleep on the floor, and when he wakes up, Mom is pulling off his shirt to get him into pajamas, so he knows that she has to see the forty-one self-inflicted bruises on his chest. He wonders why she doesn’t say anything about all the bruises.
In addition to his bruises serving as a way for Oskar to assuage his own guilt, they also serve as a cry for attention and for help. Oskar, at least subconsciously, is hurting himself in part so that others will take care of him, and he feels abandoned when Mom appears not to notice the bruises, even though she does: after all, she makes sure that he’s in therapy, and she’s been following him in secret through his expedition and making sure each Black is prepared for his visit.