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Short Story Sunday: Contents of the Dead Man’s Pockets, Jack Finney

Contents of the Dead Man’s Pockets, Jack Finney

This nail biter about a workaholic chasing a sheet of paper out on a skyscraper ledge would make anyone re-think his dedication to career over love and family. It can be read for free here: http://www.is.wayne.edu/MNISSANI/20302005/Deadman.htm

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Lately I’ve been working on the overwhelming task of thinning out my book collection; it’s something no book lover likes to do, but let’s face it, every once in a while it has to be done, either to clear clutter or make room for more.

It’s no surprise that a good portion of my collection is devoted to short story collections. I’ve read my share of great stories, and I’ve read my share of awful ones—but I’ve also read my share of a few that blew me away to the point at which I’ll never forget them. So instead of doing a typical “Top” list, I decided instead to focus on ones which fall into the last category (please note that in my “about” descriptions I tried to be spoiler-free). Do you have any that have made a lasting impression on you? Leave them in the comments.

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CLIFFS AND CRITICAL DECISIONS

Me standing on Ellison's Rocks, looking up at the sheer drop and the Forty Steps on the Cliff Walk in Newport, RI. Photo by Melissa Martin-Ellis, http://www.mellissart.com/.

A favorite short story is Jack Finney’s “Contents of the Dead Man’s Pockets.”[1] Plot: ambitious employee climbs out an eleventh-floor window to retrieve his career-boosting project notes.

It’s a fine study in story structure—character, conflict, crisis, change—and an even better examination of that second element, conflict. Specifically, inner conflict. Conflict that so often happens when, just as in a good short story, we are trying to make a crucial decision. When we are torn asunder and asking ourselves, ‘should I do this, or not?’

A couple of weekends ago I went to Newport, Rhode Island. I went to visit friends and to reconnect with a very special place: the famous Cliff Walk, which lately I’d been pining to see. I walked with Mark and Melissa and beheld the cerulean sky, the peacock ocean, the swirling aquamarine eddies, the jagged cliff sides composed mostly of metamorphic rock.[2]

We stopped at the head of Newport’s famous Forty Steps, which have been around for a couple of hundred years (although restored now—the originals were wood[3]) and was where servants from the Mansions met to hang out. The steps cut between Ellison’s Rocks and Conrad’s Cave[4]—places which, although a bit scary to reach, are navigable, and I’ve ventured to both in the past. It was high tide, though, so I couldn’t go to the cave (you can really only go to at low tide; during high, it’s like the pirate’s hole in Disney’s The Rescuers[5]). So I instead descended the steps and shimmied through a chasm in the outcropping to stand on Ellison’s Rocks. When I got to the bottom, I looked straight up.

Conrad's Cave. The entrance is toward the right of the photo. I wish I'd gotten a video of the water pouring in -- it's stunning. Photo by Melissa Martin-Ellis, http://www.mellissart.com/.

There were the steps, and the sheer cliff right beside it. The contrast struck me. I have some experience with rock climbing, and I remembered that when you’re going to rappel, it’s pretty intimidating to stand on that ledge and look down—it’ll be over quickly, but it induces vertigo. Even though the stairs take longer, the descent is less traumatic.

But either one will get a person to the same spot.

Melissa gave me a few older postcards of Newport; she told me when they were dated, but I forgot. Anyway, here's what the cliffs look like.

The Forty Steps. Photo by Melissa Martin-Ellis, http://www.mellissart.com/.

I put inner conflict over making a critical decision in this context. When we face that giant leap and contemplate a net-free plunge, it can be a long way down, baby. When we, however, break that conflict into smaller formations and conquer each one at a time, it may take longer, but it’s less overwhelming. And the outcome is the same.

One of the most interesting lines in “Contents” comes at a moment just after Tom has set his feet on the window ledge, when he’s “eleven stories above the street, staring into his own lighted apartment, odd and different-seeming now.”[6] It occurred to me that after the conflict has been resolved and we’ve lived with the decision for a little while, we often look back on it and realize we’ve made the right choice. That the alternate life we could have led somehow looks odd.

And we may even forget why we thought the decision was so difficult to make in the first place.

A view of the shoreline. Photo by Melissa Martin-Ellis, http://www.mellissart.com/.


[1] You can read Jack Finney’s “Contents of the Dead Man’s Pockets” here–it does have a couple of MINOR typos–nothing significant enough to mess up the piece (yes, I did a line-by-line check)–but it’s free : http://www.is.wayne.edu/mnissani/20302005/Deadman.htm

[2] This reference is from the Newport Comprehensive Land Use Plan, published by the City of Newport in–I’m making an assumption from the link–2005. Unfortunately, although there is a link to the PDF online, there really isn’t any publishing information. If you’d like to read the report—which is excellent in terms of wanting to know everything about Newport’s history, cultural, ecological, and geological resources—you can either click here (the PDF is posted directly on my site): comp_landuse_05 or visit this link: http://www.cityofnewport.com/departments/planning-zoning/maps-plans/pdf/comp_landuse_05.pdf

The information I’ve cited appears on page 1.

[3] Linda S. Manning, “An Amazing Stroll through Time…Walking the Walk…The Cliff Walk,” Rhode Island Roads: The Online Magazine of Travel, Life, Dining, and Entertainment for People Who Love Rhode Island, http://riroads.com/outdoors/cliff_walk.htm

[4] Ibid.

[5] For more information about The Rescuers, visit http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Rescuers

[6] Jack Finney, “Contents of the Dead Man’s Pockets,” in Adventures in Appreciation Annotated Teacher’s Edition, ed. Judy Allen-Newberry, Anthony J. Buckley and Richard Tuerk (Orlando, San Diego, Chicago and Dallas: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1989), 102.

Another old postcard, this of a common scene off the Cliff Walk or Ocean Drive.

About Melissa Martin-Ellis

Melissa Martin-Ellis is an illustrator, writer and photographer, and Vice President and Creative Director of Millennial Publications. Her artwork and writing have been featured in numerous New England exhibits and galleries, as well as in print media such as the Redwood Review, Newport This Week, Newport Life Magazine, The Boston Globe, Horseman’s Yankee Peddler, The Newport Round Table Anthology and Balancing The Tides.

She is the author of three nonfiction books, The Everything Guide to Writing Graphic Novels, The Everything Photography Book and The Everything Ghost Hunting Book for Adams Media. She the co-moderator of the Newport Round Table Writers’ Group in Newport, Rhode Island. She is currently working on a graphic novel project about the disappearance of the honeybee and collaborating with her husband, author Mark Ellis, on a paranormal thriller novel.

You can check out her stunning photos of Newport at http://www.mellissart.com/.

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