As Tom stands on the ledge outside his eleventh-story window, unable to break it, he decides to try to attract attention by lighting a match and burning what is in his jacket. He burns three letters, hoping someone will see the flames, and, when that doesn't work, he drops, one...
As Tom stands on the ledge outside his eleventh-story window, unable to break it, he decides to try to attract attention by lighting a match and burning what is in his jacket. He burns three letters, hoping someone will see the flames, and, when that doesn't work, he drops, one by one, a dozen coins from his pocket, hoping one will hit somebody and cause them to look up and see him stranded on the ledge. This doesn't work either.
All he has left at this point is the yellow sheet of paper he climbed out on the ledge to retrieve. He realizes that should he fall, this is all that would be found on his body:
Contents of the dead man's pockets, he thought, one sheet of paper bearing penciled notations—incomprehensible.
As he has the thought above, Tom, for the first time ever,
understood fully that he might actually be going to die. ... And it occurred to him then with all the force of a revelation that, if he fell, all he was ever going to have out of life he would then, abruptly, have had.
He now understands what the yellow paper crumpled in his pocket really means: a wasted life.
The title of the story focuses on the aspect of his experience in which Tom has an epiphany or "revelation" about his life as a whole. It is not simply that he has presently risked his life in a terrifying way to recapture a piece of paper with notes about grocery stores, it is that he has been living his entire life in a worthless way. He has been chasing ambitious dreams—dreams that for any number of reasons might never be realized—of climbing to the top of his company hierarchy. In the meantime, he has not been enjoying his life. If Tom dies now, he will have wasted his life.
As Tom is able, through a risky gamble, to break the window and get back to safety, he realizes he needs to live his life now. Getting ahead becomes laughable against the present moment, and he doesn't care when he sees the paper fly out the window for a second time. Instead, Tom leaves to join his wife.