Contents of the Dead Man's Pocket Summary

Jack Finney

Contents of the Dead Man's Pocket Summary

In "Contents of the Dead Man's Pocket," Tom Benecke climbs out onto a narrow window ledge to retrieve a piece of paper. This paper includes all the research that he has done on his quest to get a promotion at work. When he finally gets hold of the paper, he realizes that it's worthless.

  • Benecke's wife is getting ready for a movie. He doesn't come because he needs to finish some work he has been doing—research so he can get promoted at work.

  • When the paper with all his research flies out the window, Benecke climbs out onto the window ledge to retrieve it. He closes his eyes, afraid of developing vertigo. While he's creeping toward the paper, the window closes behind him.

  • Once Benecke retrieves the paper, he tries to get the attention of the people below. He's eleven stories up, so he must drop items out of his pocket to alert them to his presence. In the end, the only thing he has left to drop is the paper. He then realizes that it's worthless.

Summary

Introduction

Contents of the Dead Man's Pocket cover image

Jack Finney’s short story “Contents of the Dead Man’s Pocket” was originally published in the magazines Good Housekeeping and Collier’s in 1956. Although not as highly regarded as Finney's The Body Snatchers or Time and Again, "Contents" still exhibits the author's concern with time and the struggle to escape from its grip. The story's protagonist, Tom Benecke, illustrates the delicate balance between what people tend to prioritize in life and spend the most time on versus what ends up arguably being the more worthwhile investment of that time. Benecke has tremendously invested himself, including all of his leisure time, in completing research to gain a higher position at the grocery store where he is employed. In the process of working so hard, Benecke neglects his wife, Clare, and his life outside of his job. It takes a near-death experience for Benecke to realize that he has been wasting valuable portions of his life that he could have spent with his wife. Faced with the prospect of not ever having those opportunities again, Benecke mourns the death he created—the death of time—and resolves to save his life by valuing the time he is given.

The story begins with Benecke tied up in his work while his wife is getting ready to attend a movie. Insisting that he must finish the work that he has spent a month compiling, Benecke allows his wife to leave alone. Upon her exit, a gust of wind blows the one page with his work out the window of his eleventh-story apartment above Lexington Avenue. The paper lands too far beyond his reach, and because Benecke cannot conceive of abandoning all of the work he has completed, he climbs onto the narrow ledge, beginning what becomes a physically dangerous and emotionally agonizing journey to retrieve the paper.

Finney delves into Benecke’s thoughts as the character fearfully edges along the ledge and comes close at one point to losing his footing when forced to look down. Thoughts rush through Benecke’s mind of everything that he will not have a chance to do and how this may be the very last moment of his life. To make the situation worse, Benecke’s window falls shut when he finally manages to get back to it with his paper. Attempting to gain the attention of anyone on the street below or in another apartment building, Benecke begins slowly emptying his pockets. When he has nothing but his yellow work paper left, Benecke realizes that the one thing he risked his entire life for would say absolutely nothing about him if he were to fall to his death.

The detail with which Finney presents Tom Benecke’s torment creates strong suspense and allows a firsthand experience of the woe with which Benecke realizes what he has made of his life and what he should have done with that time instead.

Synopsis

Published in Collier's Magazine and Good Housekeeping in 1956, "Contents of the Dead Man's Pocket" is a short story by Jack Finney that depicts the terror that can enter everyday life.

Clare and Tom Benecke are a young married couple residing in an eleventh-story apartment on Lexington Avenue in New York. An ambitious ad man, Tom is still working on a grocery-store project that will earn him either a promotion or raise, so he sends his wife to the movies without him, promising to meet her later. As Clare leaves, a draft sends Tom's fact sheet of yellow paper out the opened window as the door closes. Running to the window, Tom sees the sheet lying a yard away on the ledge:

It was hard for him to understand that he actually had to abandon it—it was ridiculous—and he began to curse.

After working two months on this data sheet, Tom determines to retrieve it, calculating that he can be back to the window in less than two minutes. Impulsively, he steps out onto the ledge, edging his way to the corner where another apartment that juts out holds the sheet. Tom lowers his body, but he cannot quite reach it, so he must duck his head an inch lower. With the top of his head and his knees pressed against the brick, he lowers his right shoulder so his fingers can pull loose the paper. But, in so doing, Tom sees the street below and "a violent instantaneous explosion of absolute terror" runs through him.

Paralyzed with the fear of death, it became impossible for Tom to walk back. As seconds pass, Tom yells "Help!" but no one hears. Out of "utter necessity" Tom forces his feet to move. In slow, sidling steps he inches his way, then stumbles, smashing his right foot into his left ankle; he staggers and almost falls. With his fingers pressed onto the edging of his window and the full weight of his staggering body, the window slams shut. For an instant that feels...

(The entire section is 723 words.)