‘‘Contents of the Dead Man’s Pocket’’ is the story of Tom Benecke, a young advertising executive in New York City who risks his life to retrieve a scrap of paper that has flown out the window. This action results in a change in Tom’s attitude toward work and his values in life.
As the story opens, Tom is working at home on a project he wants to present to his supervisors the next day. The apartment is small; he works in the living room, not in a dedicated home office, and the hallway connecting the bedroom and living room is described both as ‘‘short’’ and ‘‘little.’’ In addition, the apartment is hot. The apartment is located high over Lexington Avenue on the eleventh floor of the building. In a crucial plot move, Tom decides to open the window.
Tom’s wife is in their bedroom, getting ready to go out to see a film. Tom feels guilty that he is not going with her; the work he is doing is not essential, but it is something that he wants to do, something he believes will further his career in advertising and might earn him a raise. Clare, Tom’s wife, tells him that he works too hard and too much, although she does not seem at all angry or upset that she will be going to the movies alone. When Tom kisses Clare goodbye, he is tempted to go with her. At the same time, he wants to finish his project for presentation.
As he stands at the apartment door watching his wife go down the hall, a breeze from the hallway comes into the apartment. Just as Tom closes the door behind him, he sees the yellow sheet of paper with all of his notes that has been sitting on his desk go flying out the window.
Tom is panicked. The yellow sheet of paper contains all of his research notes, which have taken hours and hours of time in the library and in supermarkets as he observed shopper behavior. Without the sheet of paper, he will have to redo all of his work. He imagines this will take several months, much too long for his project to have any impact with his supervisors.
When he looks out the window, he sees the paper resting on an outside window ledge, about five yards from his window, caught in a corner. Tom at first believes he will have to abandon the paper, but then he thinks about how he might retrieve it. Nothing in the apartment is long enough to reach the paper, so once again he imagines that the paper is gone forever. However, as soon as he thinks this, he also thinks how this project, along with others he has done, ‘‘would gradually mark him out from the score of other young men in his company.’’ He believes that these projects represent ‘‘the beginning of the long, long climb to where he was determined to be, at the very top.’’ As soon as he has these thoughts, he knows that he must go out on the ledge to retrieve the paper.
Once he is out on the ledge, however, what seemed like a relatively easy task when he was in the apartment turns into a life-threatening gesture. He begins to make his way to the paper, but once he has it in hand, he is frozen with the fear of falling. He screams for help, but none is forthcoming. For several pages, Finney establishes the utter terror of being on a ledge eleven stories up in horrifying detail.
Finally, Tom begins inching his way back to his apartment. The image of the inside security of the living room contrasts with the danger of the outside ledge in Tom’s mind, but he knows he must not dwell on this. Just when the reader believes that Tom’s situation cannot get any worse, it does.
Tom blindly feels his way to his apartment, but suddenly reaches the edge of the building and nearly falls. But as he tries to right himself, he inadvertently closes the window to his apartment. His situation now is dire. He tries to break the glass in the window, but the rebound as his hand bounces off the glass nearly sends him toppling backward. He imagines waiting for Clare to return to let him in, but then realizes that the whole long trip to retrieve the paper has only taken eight minutes, and that Clare will not return for at least four hours, by which time he’ll be dead on the pavement below.
He attempts to attract attention from passersby below and from people in the apartments opposite by lighting papers with a match and launching them burning out into the night air. Nothing helps. Suddenly, he realizes that he has no identification on him, only the yellow sheet of paper with notes that are comprehensible only to him. No one would understand who he was or why he had been out on the ledge if were to fall. The contents of his pocket would reveal nothing.
This revelation strikes him hard, and he realizes that, should he die, he would do so after wasting his life with his ambition and work. He decides that he must risk everything to return to the life promised by the other side of the glass, the interior of his apartment. But he knows he will only have one attempt at breaking through the window with his fist; if he is unsuccessful, he will surely fall to his death.
He balls his hand into a fist, thinks of his wife, musters all his strength, and breaks his hand through the window as he calls out his wife’s name. That he calls out to her at a life-and-death moment is a signal that his entire frame of reference has changed as a result of being out on the ledge: success at his job is not nearly as important as having a happy life with the woman he loves. He is elated when his hand breaks through the window, and he climbs into the living room.
Rather than sitting down to work, he demonstrates his new-found set of values by quickly preparing to go out and find his wife. As he opens the door, the yellow piece of paper now resting on the desk, is picked up by the wind, and ‘‘unimpeded by the glassless window, sail[s] out into the night and out of his life.’’ Tom’s response is to laugh heartily, and leave.
Sara Constantakis – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 29, Jack Finney, Published by Gale Group, 2001.