In "Contents of the Dead Man's Pocket," did Tom quickly retrieve his paper from the ledge?

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William Delaney | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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The time that Tom Benecke spends out on the ledge is crammed with details, so that it turns out to have been much shorter, both to him and to the reader, than it actually was. When Tom musters the courage to start creeping back to the window of his apartment after picking up the sheet of yellow paper, he is astonished to see visible evidence that he had only been out there on the ledge for about three minutes.

Dropping his palms to the sill, he stared into his living room--at the red-brown davenport across the room, and a magazine he had left there; at the pictures on the walls and the gray rug; the entrance to the hallway; and at his papers, typewriter, and desk, not two feet from his nose. A movement from his desk caught his eye and he saw that it was a thin curl of blue smoke; his cigarette, the ash long, was still burning in the ash tray where he'd left it--this was past all belief--only a few minutes before.

The author explained that the memo sheet was on the ledge only about five yards, fifteen feet, from the window. It might have taken Tom a minute to get to the memo, a minute to stand there paralyzed with fear after looking down and reacting to the sight of Manhattan far below, and another minute to creep back to his apartment-window after realizing that nobody was going to help him but himself. The burning cigarette is indisputable evidence of the real time involved in his adventure, although the psychological time is very similar to that experienced by Peyton Farquhar in Ambrose Bierce's story "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge."

Bierce demonstrated that a whole chain of thoughts could go through a man's mind in the few seconds it would take for him to drop from a bridge with a noose around his neck and the three or four extra feet of slack in the rope to get played out before his neck broke. In both stories much of what happens takes place in the imaginations of the protagonists.

Finney probably lived in a New York apartment building such as the one he describes in his story. It is interesting to speculate as to whether he actually climbed out his own window onto a ledge in order to get the feeling of what it would be like out there. His description of Tom's thoughts, feelings, and perceptions is so graphic that it seems to have been drawn from actual experience. Since Finney was a writer, he might have had an important sheet of a manuscript or notebook blow out his window, and this might have been the inspiration for his story, although he probably would not have taken such a desperate risk as Tom Benecke.

The least gripping part of the story is the conclusion. Tom has to break the glass, since he can't manage to raise the window. He breaks it with his fist and is saved, but this does not seem like an especially difficult feat. The most effective part of the story comes when he looks down and sees just a glimpe of the city below.

He saw, in that instant, the Loew's theater sign, blocks ahead past Fiftieth Street; the miles of traffic signals, all green now; the lights of cars and street lamps; countless neon signs; and the moving black dots of people. And a violent instantaneous explosion of absolute terror roared through him.

Tom retrieved his paper quickly, but ironically after busting all the glass out of his window he created such a draft that

...he saw the yellow paper...scooped off the desk and, unimpeded by the glassless window, sail out into the night and out of his life.

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