Oskar is the narrator in this chapter. Oskar remembers reading the first chapter of A Brief History of Time when Dad was alive, and they discuss doing something relatively insignificant: even though it might seem miniscule in the scope of the universe, it’s still something. In this spirit, Oskar decides to meet all the Blacks alphabetically, from Aaron to Zyna.
Oskar needs some sort of logical explanation for Dad’s death, and the only way that makes sense for him is to turn the key in Dad’s closet into the start of a new expedition. The journey helps anchor Oskar and gives him a sense of purpose, even if the rules he sets for himself are irrational.
Oskar puts together a field kit, including a flash light, ChapStick, his cell phone, iodine pills, and the script of Hamlet. It takes Oskar three hours and forty-one minutes to walk to Queens, where Aaron Black lives. There’s a photograph of a suspension bridge inserted here. Oskar won’t take public transportation, and even though walking over bridges also makes him panicky, public transportation is worse.
Throughout the novel, it becomes more and more appropriate that Oskar is performing in Hamlet: Oskar is trying to cope with the death of his father, just as Hamlet is trying to cope with the death of his father. The bridge symbolically represents the beginning of Oskar’s odyssey: he is crossing many boundaries, both physical and emotional, on his expedition.
Oskar makes it to Queens and buzzes for A. Black. Oskar asks the man who answers if he knows Thomas Schell. The man says “no” and soon gets off the buzzer. Oskar starts to cry, but then rings the buzzer again and tells the man that his Dad is dead. The man says that if Oskar comes up, he’ll look at the key, but since he’s hooked up to several machines, he can’t come down. Oskar is scared to go up to the ninth floor, where the man lives, so he leaves his card under the apartment building door and goes away.
Oskar is stuck at the bottom of the stairs, but the first man named Black is stuck at the top: even though he’s walked for nearly four hours to come to the first stop on his expedition, he doesn’t even get to meet the person he’s been seeking. But just getting to this house provides Oskar with motivation to continue: as he’ll learn many times throughout this expedition, it’s about the journey, not the end.
Oskar walks for two hours and twenty-three minutes to get to Abby Black’s house on Bedford Street. A sign above the door says that it’s the narrowest house in New York and that Edna Saint Vincent Millay once lived there. (There’s a photograph of the house in the chapter.) Oskar knocks, and Abby Black, a beautiful woman who looks very sad, answers. Abby says she’s in the middle of something, but Oskar lies and tells her that he’s diabetic and needs sugar, and she lets him in. He makes a mental vow to donate his allowance to a fund for diabetes.
Oskar loves statistics, records, and unique details; the fact that Abby’s house is the “narrowest house in the world” seems like a clue on one of Dad’s Expeditions for Oskar, as does the Edna Saint Vincent Millay reference. As Oskar continues his expedition, everything begins to seem like a potential clue—even though it’s still unclear exactly what resolution the solution will bring.
A man calls from the other room, but Abby doesn’t pay attention. When Oskar finds a bit of dust in the kitchen, Abby gets embarrassed, causing Oskar to launch into statistics about the amount of dust his apartment had produced in a year (112 pounds). Abby puts out the cup of coffee Oskar had requested and a bowl of strawberries.
Much later in the novel, Oskar discovers the key role that the man calling from the other room will play in his quest; however, here, Oskar is determined to focus the efforts of his expedition on talking to Abby.
Oskar compliments Abby on a photograph of an elephant hanging on the wall, causing him to launch into a long discussion of random elephant facts. Oskar gets close to the picture and takes a photograph of its eye with his camera, and there’s a photograph of a close-up elephant’s eye inserted in the chapter.
Oskar seemingly has an encyclopedic memory: he can, and has, memorized all the facts and figures he can about all sort of seemingly random topics. The close-up photograph of the elephant’s eye symbolizes all the emotions lurking just underneath Oskar’s pyrotechnic display of facts.
Abby begins to cry. Her husband continues to yell, and she continues to ignore him. Oskar tells her that’s he’s twelve, because “I wanted to be old enough for her to love me.” He asks again if Abby knew his Dad, Thomas Schell, and again, she says no. When he shows her the key, she also says that she doesn’t know anything about that.
Oskar is not only searching for the key: he’s searching for attention, connection, protection, and love. Part of the point of Oskar’s expedition is to find out more about his Dad, to stay connected to his Dad, but also, part of the point is to feel his own sense of purpose.
Oskar invites Abby to the fall play his class is putting on, Hamlet, which will be performed in twelve weeks’ time, and she says she’ll try to come. He also asks if he can kiss her, but she refuses. She does let him take a picture of her, but not of her face, so he takes a picture of the back of her head. The photograph is inserted in the text. Oskar give her his business card, which is also printed in the chapter; it has many occupations from “inventor” and “jewelry designer” to “amateur astronomer.”
When Abby says that she’ll try to come to the play, Oskar takes her at her word, but it seems as though she’s just brushing Oskar off politely with a noncommittal little lie. Oskar’s business card, with all its many occupations and specialties listed, shows every fantasy about himself: his “occupations” are the preoccupations of his imagination.
Oskar goes over to Grandma’s apartment when he gets home. She’s just been crying. She tells Oskar she was talking to the renter.
Grandma doesn’t tell Oskar that “the renter” is actually his grandfather.
Oskar remembers that Grandma used to take care of him when he was a baby. Once, he made her panic because he was hiding from her. Ever since, whenever one of them says the other’s name, the other person has to say, “I’m OK.”
Oskar and Grandma have both had a loved one leave them—Oskar’s Dad, Grandma’s husband—and the Marco-Polo ritual of saying “I’m OK” after the other person says his or her name is a routine to reassure the other person’s presence.
After Dad died, Oskar explains to the reader, Oskar and his Mom went to Oskar’s Dad’s storage facility, where Oskar found the old walkie-talkies that they had had to monitor Oskar as a baby. Oskar gave one to his Grandma, and now they talk on them all the time; in fact, she’s usually waiting on the other end for him. There’s a photograph of Grandma’s apartment window in the chapter.
Oskar found it difficult to throw away anything from Dad’s storage unit, even long-discarded and unused objects. He repurposed the method that Mom and Dad had had to look after him as a baby as a means of communication for himself and Grandma to look after each other.
Oskar remembers how his Grandma knits him white clothes and finds special things for him. She gave Oskar a stamp collection when he mentions that he was considering starting one, but he yelled at her when she says she’d gotten rid of the plate block. They spend time together constantly, but Oskar still doesn’t know about her past.
Grandma tries to connect with Oskar by giving him things that make him feel special and loved; however, Oskar sometimes doesn’t realize that a gift is not about the gift itself, but about the gift-giver’s intentions.
That night, Oskar stays up designing jewelry, and he can’t stop thinking about his Dad’s storage facility. He can’t sleep, so he goes to Mom’s room and watches her sleep. He wakes her up and asks what the storage facility was called, hoping for something with the word “Black,” but instead, she tells him that it’s “Store-a-Lot.”
Oskar has begun to reach a stage of hyper-awareness in his expedition when everything seems like it could be interrelated. Reminiscing about Grandma and about Dad’s storage unit make him scour his mind for another hint: rather than delving deep into his emotions, he thinks of the puzzle he’s concocted.