Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Page 2Jonathan Safran Foer
Every time the beeps would get close together, I’d tell Grandma to shine the flashlight on the spot. Then I’d put on my white gloves, take the hand shovel from my kit, and dig extremely gently. When I saw something, I used a paintbrush to get rid of the dirt, just like a real archeologist. Even though I only searched a small area of the park that night, I dug up a quarter, and a handful of paper clips, and what I thought was the chain from a lamp that you pull to make the light go on, and a refrigerator magnet for sushi, which I know about, but wish I didn’t. I put all of the evidence in a bag and marked on a map where I found it.
When I got home, I examined the evidence in my laboratory under my microscope, one piece at a time: a bent spoon, some screws, a pair of rusty scissors, a toy car, a pen, a key ring, broken glasses for someone with incredibly bad eyes…
I brought them to Dad, who was reading the New York Times at the kitchen table, marking the mistakes with his red pen. “Here’s what I’ve found,” I said, pushing my pussy off the table with the tray of evidence. Dad looked at it and nodded. I asked, “So?” He shrugged his shoulders like he had no idea what I was talking about, and he went back to the paper. “Can’t you even tell me if I’m on the right track?” Buckminster purred, and Dad shrugged his shoulders again. “But if you don’t tell me anything, how can I ever be right?” He circled something in an article and said, “Another way of looking at it would be, how could you ever be wrong?”
He got up to get a drink of water, and I examined what he’d circled on the page, because that’s how tricky he could be. It was in an article about the girl who had disappeared, and how everyone thought the congressman who was humping her had killed her. A few months later they found her body in Rock Creek Park, which is in Washington, D.C., but by then everything was different, and no one cared anymore, except for her parents.
It wasn’t a mistake! It was a message to me!
I went back to the park every night for the next three nights. I dug up a hair clip, and a roll of pennies, and a thumbtack, and a coat hanger, and a 9V battery, and a Swiss Army knife, and a tiny picture frame, and a tag for a dog named Turbo, and a square of aluminum foil, and a ring, and a razor, and an extremely old pocket watch that was stopped at 5:37, although I didn’t know if it was A.M. or P.M. But I still couldn’t figure out what it all meant. The more I found, the less I understood.
I spread the map out on the dining room table, and I held down the corners with cans of V8. The dots from where I’d found things looked like the stars in the universe. I connected them, like an astrologer, and if you squinted your eyes like a Chinese person, it kind of looked like the word “fragile.” Fragile. What was fragile? Was Central Park fragile? Was nature fragile? Were the things I found fragile? A thumbtack isn’t fragile. Is a bent spoon fragile? I erased, and connected the dots in a different way, to make “door.” Fragile? Door? Then I thought of porte, which is French for door, obviously. I erased and connected the dots to make “porte.” I had the revelation that I could connect the dots to make “cyborg,” and “platypus,” and “boobs,” and even “Oskar,” if you were extremely Chinese. I could connect them to make almost anything I wanted, which meant I wasn’t getting closer to anything. And now I’ll never know what I was supposed to find. And that’s another reason I can’t sleep.
I’m not allowed to watch TV, although I am allowed to rent documentaries that are approved for me, and I can read anything I want. My favorite book is A Brief History of Time, even though I haven’t actually finished it, because the math is incredibly hard and Mom isn’t good at helping me. One of my favorite parts is the beginning of the first chapter, where Stephen Hawking tells about a famous scientist who was giving a lecture about how the earth orbits the sun, and the sun orbits the solar system, and whatever. Then a woman in the back of the room raised her hand and said, “What you have told us is rubbish. The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise.” So the scientist asked her what the tortoise was standing on. And she said, “But it’s turtles all the way down!”
I love that story, because it shows how ignorant people can be. And also because I love tortoises.
A few weeks after the worst day, I started writing lots of letters. I don’t know why, but it was one of the only things that made my boots lighter. One weird thing is that instead of using normal stamps, I used stamps from my collection, including valuable ones, which sometimes made me wonder if what I was really doing was trying to get rid of things. The first letter I wrote was to Stephen Hawking. I used a stamp of Alexander Graham Bell.
Dear Stephen Hawking,
Can I please be your protégé?
I thought he wasn’t going to respond, because he was such an amazing person and I was so normal. But then one day I came home from school and Stan handed me an envelope and said, “You’ve got mail!” in the AOL voice I taught him. I ran up the 105 stairs to our apartment, and ran to my laboratory, and went into my closet, and turned on my flashlight, and opened it. The letter inside was typed, obviously, because Stephen Hawking can’t use his hands, because he has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, which I know about, unfortunately.
Thank you for your letter. Because of the large
volume of mail I receive, I am unable to write
personal responses. Nevertheless, know that I read
and save every letter, with the hope of one day
being able to give each the proper response it
deserves. Until that day,
I called Mom’s cell. “Oskar?” “You picked up before it rang.” “Is everything OK?” “I’m gonna need a laminator.” “A laminator?” “There’s something incredibly wonderful that I want to preserve.”
Dad always used to tuck me in, and he’d tell the greatest stories, and we’d read the New York Times together, and sometimes he’d whistle “I Am the Walrus,” because that was his favorite song, even though he couldn’t explain what it meant, which frustrated me. One thing that was so great was how he could find a mistake in every single article we looked at. Sometimes they were grammar mistakes, sometimes they were mistakes with geography or facts, and sometimes the article just didn’t tell the whole story. I loved having a dad who was smarter than the New York Times, and I loved how my cheek could feel the hairs on his chest through his T-shirt, and how he always smelled like shaving, even at the end of the day. Being with him made my brain quiet. I didn’t have to invent a thing.
When Dad was tucking me in that night, the night before the worst day, I asked if the world was a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise. “Excuse me?” “It’s just that why does the earth stay in place instead of falling through the universe?” “Is this Oskar I’m tucking in? Has an alien stolen his brain for experimentation?” I said, “We don’t believe in aliens.” He said, “The earth does fall through the universe. You know that, buddy. It’s constantly falling toward the sun. That’s what it means to orbit.” So I said, “Obviously, but why is there gravity?” He said, “What do you mean why is there gravity?” “What’s the reason?” “Who said there had to be a reason?” “No one did, exactly.” “My question was rhetorical.” “What’s that mean?” “It means I wasn’t asking it for an answer, but to make a point.” “What point?” “That there doesn’t have to be a reason.” “But if there isn’t a reason, then why does the universe exist at all?” “Because of sympathetic conditions.” “So then why am I your son?” “Because Mom and I made love, and one of my sperm fertilized one of her eggs.” “Excuse me while I regurgitate.” “Don’t act your age.” “Well, what I don’t get is why do we exist? I don’t mean how, but why.” I watched the fireflies of his thoughts orbit his head. He said, “We exist because we exist.” “What the?” “We could imagine all sorts of universes unlike this one, but this is the one that happened.”
I understood what
he meant, and I didn’t disagree with him, but I didn’t agree with him either. Just because you’re an atheist, that doesn’t mean you wouldn’t love for things to have reasons for why they are.
I turned on my shortwave radio, and with Dad’s help I was able to pick up someone speaking Greek, which was nice. We couldn’t understand what he was saying, but we lay there, looking at the glow-in-the-dark constellations on my ceiling, and listened for a while. “Your grandfather spoke Greek,” he said. “You mean he speaks Greek,” I said. “That’s right. He just doesn’t speak it here.” “Maybe that’s him we’re listening to.” The front page was spread over us like a blanket. There was a picture of a tennis player on his back, who I guess was the winner, but I couldn’t really tell if he was happy or sad.
“Dad?” “Yeah?” “Could you tell me a story?” “Sure.” “A good one?” “As opposed to all the boring ones I tell.” “Right.” I tucked my body incredibly close into his, so my nose pushed into his armpit. “And you won’t interrupt me?” “I’ll try not to.” “Because it makes it hard to tell a story.” “And it’s annoying.” “And it’s annoying.”
The moment before he started was my favorite moment.
“Once upon a time, New York City had a sixth borough.” “What’s a borough?” “That’s what I call an interruption.” “I know, but the story won’t make any sense to me if I don’t know what a borough is.” “It’s like a neighborhood. Or a collection of neighborhoods.” “So if there was once a sixth borough, then what are the five boroughs?” “Manhattan, obviously, Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island, and the Bronx.” “Have I ever been to any of the other boroughs?” “Here we go.” “I just want to know.” “We went to the Bronx Zoo once, a few years ago. Remember that?” “No.” “And we’ve been to Brooklyn to see the roses at the Botanic Garden.” “Have I been to Queens?” “I don’t think so.” “Have I been to Staten Island?” “No.” “Was there really a sixth borough?” “I’ve been trying to tell you.” “No more interruptions. I promise.”
When the story finished, we turned the radio back on and found someone speaking French. That was especially nice, because it reminded me of the vacation we just came back from, which I wish never ended. After a while, Dad asked me if I was awake. I told him no, because I knew that he didn’t like to leave until I had fallen asleep, and I didn’t want him to be tired for work in the morning. He kissed my forehead and said good night, and then he was at the door.
“Dad?” “Yeah, buddy?” “Nothing.”
The next time I heard his voice was when I came home from school the next day. We were let out early, because of what happened. I wasn’t even a little bit panicky, because both Mom and Dad worked in midtown, and Grandma didn’t work, obviously, so everyone I loved was safe.
I know that it was 10:18 when I got home, because I look at my watch a lot. The apartment was so empty and so quiet. As I walked to the kitchen, I invented a lever that could be on the front door, which would trigger a huge spoked wheel in the living room to turn against metal teeth that would hang down from the ceiling, so that it would play beautiful music, like maybe “Fixing a Hole” or “I Want to Tell You,” and the apartment would be one huge music box.
After I petted Buckminster for a few seconds, to show him I loved him, I checked the phone messages. I didn’t have a cell phone yet, and when we were leaving school, Toothpaste told me he’d call to let me know whether I was going to watch him attempt skateboarding tricks in the park, or if we were going to go look at Playboy magazines in the drugstore with the aisles where no one can see what you’re looking at, which I didn’t feel like doing, but still.
Message one. Tuesday, 8:52 A.M. Is anybody there? Hello? It’s Dad. If you’re there, pick up. I just tried the office, but no one was picking up. Listen, something’s happened. I’m OK. They’re telling us to stay where we are and wait for the firemen. I’m sure it’s fine. I’ll give you another call when I have a better idea of what’s going on. Just wanted to let you know that I’m OK, and not to worry. I’ll call again soon.
There were four more messages from him: one at 9:12, one at 9:31, one at 9:46, and one at 10:04. I listened to them, and listened to them again, and then before I had time to figure out what to do, or even what to think or feel, the phone started ringing.
It was 10:22:27.
I looked at the caller ID and saw that it was him.
Why I’m Not Where You Are 5/21/63
To my unborn child: I haven’t always been silent, I used to talk and talk and talk and talk, I couldn’t keep my mouth shut, the silence overtook me like a cancer, it was one of my first meals in America, I tried to tell the waiter, “The way you just handed me that knife, that reminds me of—” but I couldn’t finish the sentence, her name wouldn’t come, I tried again, it wouldn’t come, she was locked inside me, how strange, I thought, how frustrating, how pathetic, how sad, I took a pen from my pocket and wrote “Anna” on my napkin, it happened again two days later, and then again the following day, she was the only thing I wanted to talk about, it kept happening, when I didn’t have a pen, I’d write “Anna” in the air—backward and right to left—so that the person I was speaking with could see, and when I was on the phone I’d dial the numbers—2, 6, 6, 2—so that the person could hear what I couldn’t, myself, say. “And” was the next word I lost, probably because it was so close to her name, what a simple word to say, what a profound word to lose, I had to say “ampersand,” which sounded ridiculous, but there it is, “I’d like a coffee ampersand something sweet,” nobody would choose to be like that. “Want” was a word I lost early on, which is not to say that I stopped wanting things—I wanted things more—I just stopped being able to express the want, so instead I said “desire,” “I desire two rolls,” I would tell the baker, but that wasn’t quite right, the meaning of my thoughts started to float away from me, like leaves that fall from a tree into a river, I was the tree, the world was the river. I lost “come” one afternoon with the dogs in the park, I lost “fine” as the barber turned me toward the mirror, I lost “shame”—the verb and the noun in the same moment; it was a shame. I lost “carry,” I lost the things I carried—“daybook,” “pencil,” “pocket change,” “wallet”—I even lost “loss.” After a time, I had only a handful of words left, if someone did something nice for me, I would tell him, “The thing that comes before ‘you’re welcome,’” if I was hungry, I’d point at my stomach and say, “I am the opposite of full,” I’d lost “yes,” but I still had “no,” so if someone asked me, “Are you Thomas?” I would answer, “Not no,” but then I lost “no,” I went to a tattoo parlor and had YES written onto the palm of my left hand, and NO onto my right palm, what can I say, it hasn’t made life wonderful, it’s made life possible, when I rub my hands against each other in the middle of winter I am warming myself with the friction of YES and NO, when I clap my hands I am showing my appreciation through the uniting and parting of YES and NO, I signify “book” by peeling open my clapped hands, every book, for me, is the balance of YES and NO, even this one, my last one, especially this one. Does it break my heart, of course, every moment of every day, into more pieces than my heart was made of, I never thought of myself as quiet, much less silent, I never thought about things at all, everything changed, the distance that wedged itself between me and my happiness wasn’t the world, it wasn’t the bombs and burning buildings, it was me, my thinking, the cancer of never letting go, is ignorance bliss, I don’t know, but it’s so painful to think, and tell me, what did thinking ever do for me, to what great place did thinking ever bring me? I think and think and think, I’ve thought myself out of happiness one million times, but never once into it. “I” was the last word I was able to speak aloud, which is a terrible thing, but there it is, I would walk around the neighborhood saying, “I I I I.” “You want a cup of coffee, Thomas?” “I.” “And maybe something sweet?” “I.” “How about this weather?” “I.” “You look upset. Is anything wrong?” I wanted to say, “Of
course,” I wanted to ask, “Is anything right?” I wanted to pull the thread, unravel the scarf of my silence and start again from the beginning, but instead I said, “I.” I know I’m not alone in this disease, you hear the old people in the street and some of them are moaning, “Ay yay yay,” but some of them are clinging to their last word, “I,” they’re saying, because they’re desperate, it’s not a complaint it’s a prayer, and then I lost “I” and my silence was complete. I started carrying blank books like this one around, which I would fill with all the things I couldn’t say, that’s how it started, if I wanted two rolls of bread from the baker, I would write “I want two rolls” on the next blank page and show it to him, and if I needed help from someone, I’d write “Help,” and if something made me want to laugh, I’d write “Ha ha ha!” and instead of singing in the shower I would write out the lyrics of my favorite songs, the ink would turn the water blue or red or green, and the music would run down my legs, at the end of each day I would take the book to bed with me and read through the pages of my life:
I want two rolls
And I wouldn’t say no to something sweet
I’m sorry, this is the smallest I’ve got
Start spreading the news…
The regular, please
Thank you, but I’m about to burst
I’m not sure, but it’s late
Ha ha ha!
It wasn’t unusual for me to run out of blank pages before the end of the day, so should I have to say something to someone on the street or in the bakery or at the bus stop, the best I could do was flip back through the daybook and find the most fitting page to recycle, if someone asked me, “How are you feeling?” it might be that my best response was to point at, “The regular, please,” or perhaps, “And I wouldn’t say no to something sweet,” when my only friend, Mr. Richter, suggested, “What if you tried to make a sculpture again? What’s the worst thing that could happen?” I shuffled halfway into the filled book: “I’m not sure, but it’s late.” I went through hundreds of books, thousands of them, they were all over the apartment, I used them as doorstops and paperweights, I stacked them if I needed to reach something, I slid them under the legs of wobbly tables, I used them as trivets and coasters, to line the birdcages and to swat insects from whom I begged forgiveness, I never thought of my books as being special, only necessary, I might rip out a page—”I’m sorry, this is the smallest I’ve got”—to wipe up some mess, or empty a whole day to pack up the emergency light bulbs, I remember spending an afternoon with Mr. Richter in the Central Park Zoo, I went weighted down with food for the animals, only someone who’d never been an animal would put up a sign saying not to feed them, Mr. Richter told a joke, I tossed hamburger to the lions, he rattled the cages with his laughter, the animals went to the corners, we laughed and laughed, together and separately, out loud and silently, we were determined to ignore whatever needed to be ignored, to build a new world from nothing if nothing in our world could be salvaged, it was one of the best days of my life, a day during which I lived my life and didn’t think about my life at all. Later that year, when snow started to hide the front steps, when morning became evening as I sat on the sofa, buried under everything I’d lost, I made a fire and used my laughter for kindling: “Ha ha ha!” “Ha ha ha!” “Ha ha ha!” “Ha ha ha!” I was already out of words when I met your mother, that may have been what made our marriage possible, she never had to know me. We met at the Columbian Bakery on Broadway, we’d both come to New York lonely, broken and confused, I was sitting in the corner stirring cream into coffee, around and around like a little solar system, the place was half empty but she slid right up next to me, “You’ve lost everything,” she said, as if we were sharing a secret, “I can see.” If I’d been someone else in a different world I’d’ve done something different, but I was myself, and the world was the world, so I was silent, “It’s OK,” she whispered, her mouth too close to my ear, “Me too. You can probably see it from across a room. It’s not like being Italian.