Contents of the Dead Man's Pocket cover image

Contents of the Dead Man's Pocket

by Jack Finney
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What is the significance of the yellow paper?

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Tom Benecke is working on an important project. As an advertising man for a grocery chain, he has spent months on a particular campaign. He has kept his records by hand on a piece of yellow paper. One night he decides to stay home to finish the project, urging his wife to go off to the movies without him. As he gets ready to type everything on his typewriter, complete with carbon copies, a stiff breeze blows his handwritten page out the window. They live on the 11th floor of an urban apartment building

The rest of the story details Tom’s efforts to recover this single precious sheet of paper. After he goes out on the window ledge after it, the window blows shut and he cannot get back inside. It will be hours before his wife returns. Although he does manage to grab the paper, he has no way to get into his apartment. He is too far up for people to hear him so he starts dropping things from his pockets onto the street below.

As his last resort to save his life, he must sacrifice the paper. In doing so he realizes its total worthlessness, and that he has been wasting his precious life on a pointless job. The paper stands for all that wasted effort and for his epiphany in realizing its true lack of worth.

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.

Tom then decides to break the window and save his own life.

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The opening sentence of "Contents of the Dead Man's Pocket" shows the primitive way in which many important documents were typed in the days before word processors:

At the little living-room desk Tom Benecke rolled two sheets of flimsy and a heavier top sheet, carbon paper sandwiched between them, into his portable.

He is preparing to type an important document on his portable typewriter. He has one heavy "top sheet," a piece of good-quality paper, plus two "flimsies," which were yellow second sheets for making two additional copies. Between each sheet is one sheet of carbon paper—so there would be two sheets of carbon paper, two yellow second sheets, and one sheet of twenty-pound bond typing paper all neatly aligned together and rolled into the portable-typewriter's platen.

Sometimes inspirations cannot be recaptured. We write them down because we know we are going to forget them. The best ideas come from the unconscious. They are like messages from the muses—or from the gods. We need to capture them on the wing—even if they come to us in dreams and we have to wake ourselves up, turn on the light, and scribble down a few words that will remind us of the magical elusive idea.

Sir Francis Bacon advised the following:

Write down the thoughts of the moment. Those that come unsought for are commonly the most valuable.

Some thoughts can be extremely valuable. How many precious thoughts are lost to mankind because they never got written down?

According to an ancient Chinese saying, "the faintest ink is better than the best memory."

The experience of losing a precious idea can make some people keep pens and notebooks everywhere within easy reach—in their coat pocket or purse, in the glove compartment of their car, on the bedside table, and right beside the telephone, among other important places:

“An idea isn’t put into a man’s head to be buried; it’s put into his head to be useful.”
Charles Dickens, Little Dorrit

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