Tom has lost a single sheet of yellow paper which is extremely valuable to him because it is covered with notes he has been accumulating for a long time. He intended to type up his hand-written notes that evening and present them as a memo to his superior at the wholesale grocery company where he is a rising young executive. He opens a window in his apartment because it is warm. This creates a draft which unfortunately carries his precious yellow sheet out the window, where it lodges on a ledge about five yards away. His problem is very simple: He decides he must climb out on the ledge eleven floors above the street, edge his way over to the paper, pick it up, and edge his way back to the window of his apartment.
The story resembles Jack London's "To Build a Fire" in a couple of ways. For one thing, the protagonist is all alone. For another thing, the problem seems simple enough to solve at first, but it gets more and more complicated because of unforeseen circumstances. In Jack London's story the unnamed protagonist accidentally breaks through the snow-covered ice and gets completely soaked. He desperately needs to build a fire to keep from freezing to death. In "Contents of the Dead Man's Pocket" the problem also seems simple. The distance to the memo sheet is only five yards, or about fifteen feet. Tom knows that he should avoid looking down, because the sight could frighten him and make him dizzy--just as it would do to any of us who are reading the story. People get weird ideas and feelings when they are on a high place and look down. Some people feel an urge to jump. If they try not to think about falling, they are sure to think about nothing but falling.
Tom keeps one side of his face pressed against the wall of the tall apartment building. The ledge turned out to be narrower than he thought it would be. He can't keep his feet entirely on the ledge; his heels are projecting out over empty space. There is hardly anything for him to get hold of--just some spaces between the tiers of bricks deep enough for his fingertips. He succeeds in getting to the yellow paper, but then he finds that he can't pick it up without looking down at it.
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. For a motionless instant he saw himself externally--bent practically douoble, balanced on this narrow ledge, nearly half his body projecting out above the street far below--and he began to tremble violently, panic flaring through his mind and muscles, and he felt the blood rush from the surface of his skin.
Now Tom Benecke's problem is much, much worse. He is paralyzed with fear. He is only fifteen feet away from his apartment window, but it seems impossible for him to make the trip back. Like the unnamed protagonist in Jack London's "To Build a Fire," Tom Benecke has become the victim of his own error of judgment. He didn't think things through carefully before committing himself to such a dangerous mission. He starts to imagine himself already dead and what will be recorded as the contents of the dead man's pocket. Unlike the protagonist of "To Build a Fire," Tom is surrounded by millions of people, but he is just as much alone as the man freezing to death in the Yukon.
watching the flame crawl up the paper, till it flared bright. Then he held it behind him over the street, moving it from side to side, watching it over his shoulder, the flame flickering and guttering in the wind.
There were three letters in his pocket and he lighted each of them, holding each till the flame touched his hand and then dropping it to the street below. At one point, watching over his shoulder while the last of the letters burned, he saw the man across the street put down his paper and stand--even seeming to glance
oward Tom's window. But when he moved, it was only to walk across the room and disappear from sight.