In "Contents of the Dead Man's Pocket," why does Tom want to spend the evening working?

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William Delaney eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Tom Benecke is described as extremely ambitious. He is living in New York City, a place where competition for advancement is fierce. He has his ideas, along with supporting evidence, written in his own version of shorthand, on a single sheet of yellow paper, and he is anxious to turn it into a formal type-written interoffice memo as soon as possible.

On four long Saturday afternoons he had stood in supermarkets counting the people who passed certain displays, and the results were scribbled on that yellow sheet. From stacks of trade publications, gone over page by page in snatched half-hours at work and during evenings at home, he had copied facts, quotations, and figures onto that sheet. And he had carried it with him to the Public Library on Fifth Avenue, where he'd spent a dozen lunch hours and early evenings adding more. 

He sends his wife to the movie theater alone, although she obviously would like very much for him to come with her. When she protests mildly, he says:

"You won't mind though, will you, when the money comes rolling in and I'm known as the Boy Wizard of Wholesale Groceries?"

The author of this harrowing story makes the reader feel the importance of this project to Tom's career, while at the same time he makes the reader realize the importance of that single sheet of yellow paper to the project. Fate seems determined to thwart Tom. When he opens his window and his wife opens their apartment-door, the draft picks up the yellow paper and blows it outside, where it lands on a narrow ledge eleven floors above Lexington Avenue.

The author skillfully describes how Tom gathers courage to climb out onto the ledge and inch his way towards the yellow paper which is clinging to the side of the building. It isn't until he has committed himself to this attempt and is outside clinging to the brick wall that he breaks his resolve not to look down. When he is gingerly lowering his body so that he can get his fingers on the paper, he can't help looking down for an instant.

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.

Tom finds himself stuck outside on a narrow ledge eleven floors above the street. He has accidently shut the window and can't get it open. His only hope is his wife. But in 1956 the theaters still showed double features and short subjects.

It would be four hours before she could possibly come home, and he tried to picture himself kneeling out here, finger tips hooked to these narrow strippings, while first one movie, preceded by a slow listing of credits, began, developed, reached its climax, and then finally ended. There's be a newsreel next, maybe, and then an animated cartoon, and then interminable scenes from coming pictures. And then, once more, the beginning of a full length picture--while all the time he hung out here in the night.

Jack Finney's story is strongly reminiscent of some of those by Cornell Woolrich, who is best remembered for filmed versions of his stories, notably Rear Window (1954). It also resembles Stephen King’s short story “The Ledge,” which was included with two of King’s other stories in the excellent film Cat’s Eye (1985).

Tom Benecke's experience changes him. It makes him realize that his ambition has blinded him, causing him to neglect his wife, who is more important than anything else in the world.

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Contents of the Dead Man's Pocket

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