At the beginning of "Contents of the Dead Man’s Pocket," what seems to be the most important thing in Tom Benecke’s life?  

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William Delaney eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Tom Benecke is characterized as ambitious and competitive. He is married and living in New York City, which was and still is a highly competitive environment. For some time he has been working on a project for a new grocery-story display method, which he feels sure will win him recognition and promotion at the firm he works for. He tells his wife he expects to become known as "the Boy Wizard of Wholesale Groceries."

On the evening the story takes place, Tom is preparing to write the all-important Interoffice Memo that will bring his project to the attention of the top executives. He sends his wife to the movies by herself, and their brief conversation before she leaves indicates two important facts: (1) that he is working too hard, and (2) that she resents being neglected.

The fact that his project is the most important thing in his life is dramatized when he decides to risk his life by climbing out on the ledge below his apartment window to retrieve a sheet of paper that got blown outside when his wife opened their door and created a draft.

On four long Saturday afternoons he had stood in supermarkets counting the people who passed certain displays, and the results were scribbled on that yellow sheet. From stacks of trade publications, gone over page by page in snatched half-hours at work and during evenings at home, he had copied facts, quotations, and figures onto that sheet. And he had carried it with him to the Public Library on Fifth Avenue, where he'd spent a dozen lunch hours and early evenings adding more. All were needed to support and lend authority to his idea for a new grocery-story display method; without them his idea was a mere opinion. And there they all lay in his own improvised shorthand--countless hours of work--out there on the ledge.

The author specifies early in the story that the apartment is eleven stories above Lexington Avenue. It seems dangerous enough when he is merely considering the idea of climbing out on the ledge and inching over to retrieve it from where the breeze had blown it against a projecting blank wall about five yards away; but when he is actually standing on the ledge the idea seems almost suicidal. Can anything be that important?

If the ledge were two or three feet wide, the risk would be bad enough. He could trip or slip or have an attack of vertigo and go screaming backwards into space. But the ledge actually appears to be only "about as wide as the length of his shoe." In other words, it is less than a foot wide. And when he gets outside:

He moved on the balls of his feet, heels lifted slightly; the ledge was not quite as wide as he'd expected.

He can't even plant his feet firmly on this narrow ledge. He is practically walking on his toes, and he has to keep his body and his face pressed against the building, not daring to look down.

He could hear the buttons of his jacket scraping steadily along the rough bricks and feel them catch momentarily, tugging a little, at each mortared crack.

He manages to retrieve his precious paper and to get back--but he had accidentally shut the old-fashioned double-pane window while climbing out, and now he is stuck outside looking into his own apartment which seems like a haven of bliss. He can't be too vigorous in trying to get through the window because that could cause him to lose his balance. His near-death experience has made him realize the folly of his ambition and the most important thing in his life, which is not his job but his wife.

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Contents of the Dead Man's Pocket

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