First published in Collier’s Magazine (October 26, 1956), “Contents of the Dead Man’s Pocket” by Jack Finney is a modern American short story set in New York City. Through the story’s protagonist, Tom Benecke, Finny examines the concept of personal success in relation to the American business culture of the 1950s. In addition to Tom Benecke, the story features only one other character, Tom’s wife, Clare.
Tom and Clare are an attractive young married couple who live in a small apartment high above Lexington Avenue. As the story begins, Clare is dressing to go to the movies, but Tom has chosen to stay home to complete a marketing project to display grocery store products in a new way. He is driven to finish his work, hoping that his efforts will impress his boss and lead to professional advancement. Tom is ambitious and career-oriented. He wants to succeed, and he defines success as having money “rolling in.” Tom wants to go out with his wife, but he is obsessed with his work. When Clare leaves, alone, Tom feels guilty but turns immediately to his paperwork laid out on his desk near the window he had opened moments before.
After closing the door behind Clare, Tom is horrified to see a single sheet of yellow paper fly out the open window. This is the page containing all of his project research notes, gathered through hours and hours of extra work on many nights and weekends. Tom watches the paper slide along the building’s ledge three feet below his window, finally becoming lodged five feet away in a corner where the exterior wall of the adjacent apartment projects farther into space over the avenue far below. Tom’s mind races as he stares at the yellow paper—a symbol of his hard work, sacrifice, and future success.
Even though he tries, Tom cannot accept its loss; ignoring his better judgment, he climbs through the open window and stands on the narrow ledge, eleven stories above the street, on a cold and windy autumn night. He intends to retrieve the paper. With his face and body pressed against the brick building, he will hold on to the bricks with his finger tips and shuffle sideways to the corner, get the paper, and shuffle back to his window. As Tom moves away from his warm, lighted apartment into the darkness, he undertakes what turns out to be a truly terrifying journey.
The story describes Tom’s ordeal in vivid, specific chronological detail. After finally working his way to the paper and bending to pick it up, Tom pulls it loose; then he sees Lexington Avenue many stories below. The sudden realization of his tenuous physical position on the ledge terrorizes him. Jerking upright and shuddering violently, he almost falls to his death. He struggles to overcome his fear, breathes deeply, and gets control. Calmer but unable to move, Tom...
(The entire section is 1152 words.)