Like many stories, this one is built on choices made by the main character. What choice has Tom already made when the story opens in "Content of the Dead Man's Pocket"? Why does he choose to risk his life to retrieve the paper?
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Tom Beneke does not actually believe he is risking his life in his attempt to retrieve the paper that has blown out the window. He convinces himself that it will actually be very easy because the vital yellow sheet scribbled with his irreplaceable notes is so close to the window that he can practically reach it--but not quite.
He thought about the poker from the fireplace, then the broom, then the mop--discarding each thought as it occurred to him. There was nothing in the apartment long enough to reach that paper.
There is a ledge right below his window. Of course, he would never have climbed out there if the ledge hadn't existed, and he would never have done it if he thought his life was in danger. But once he gets outside he realizes that the ledge isn't as wide as he had thought. It isn't as wide as his feet, so he has to inch along on the balls of his feet. And his awkward position forces him to keep his face flattened against the brick wall. He tries not to look down because the view from the eleventh floor might give him vertigo. But when he gets to the paper he has to look down. It is at this point that he sees a sight that terrifies him, freezes him, and makes him realize the peril he has placed himself in by his series of choices.
We realize that Tom has already made some fateful choices before he decides to climb out of his apartment window.
He crossed the room to the hallway entrance and, leaning against the doorjamb, hands shoved into his back pockets again, he called, "Clare?" When his wife answered, he said, "Sure you don't mind going alone?"
"No." Her voice was muffled, and he knew her head and shoulders were in the bedroom closet. Then the tap of her high heels sounded on the wood floor and she appeared at the end of the little hallway, wearing a slip, both hands raised to one ear, clipping on an earring. She smiled at him--a slender, very pretty girl with light brown, almost blonde, hair--her prettiness emphasized by the pleasant nature that showed in her face. "It's just that I hate you to miss this movie; you wanted to see it too."
He decides to stay home that night and work on his precious report to the management of the wholesale grocery company he works for. He encourages his wife to go to the movies alone. He wants to have the place to himself so he can concentrate. If he hadn't decided to go into the business jungle of Manhattan, and if he hadn't been so ambitious to succeed in that business that he was becoming a workaholic and neglecting his wife, then he wouldn't be out on that ledge. If he hadn't chosen to work on his report that night, he wouldn't have lost the sheet of notes. If he hadn't sent his wife to the movies, she would have been there to help him in his time of utmost need. A number of choices had led to his being frozen to the brick wall eleven stories above the street, unable to move his legs, certain that he would either faint or succumb to vertigo and end up smashed on the pavement far down below.
The critical point in the story comes when Tom finally gets to the paper and, for the first time, has to look down in order to be able to grasp it with one hand. Then he has to take in the moving spectacle of Manhattan at night.
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.
It was a crazy thing to do, but Tom didn't believe his life was in danger until he got out on the ledge, moved away from his apartment window, and was forced to look down. Then he realized he was not only in danger, but as good as dead. If his wife had been with him while he was working on his report, she never would have let him climb out of that window onto that narrow ledge. Woman have better sense in such matters than men. She would have realized it was crazy--and perhaps she would have made him see how crazy it was.
The title of the story helps make the reader believe that Tom is doomed to fall to his death.
It occurred to him irrelevantly that his death on the sidewalk below would be an eternal mystery; the window closed--why, how, and from where could he have fallen? No one would be able to identify his body for a time, either--the thought was somehow unbearable and increased his fear. All they'd find in his pockets would be the yellow sheet. Contents of the dead man's pockets, he thought, one sheet of paper bearing penciled notations--incomprehensible.
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