Precisely at noon the next day a cab pulled up to the door and out stepped a slim, boyish-looking man in his early forties. Dr. Ronald Sykes had a long narrow face with thinning dark hair; it was an intelligent face with shrewd knowing eyes and a ready smile. He was wearing stout English boots, gray flannels, and a tweed jacket. If the hair had been a little thicker, the face a little fuller, and the eyes somewhat less knowing, he could have passed for an undergraduate.
“I came to see you in behalf of my late friend and colleague, Isaac Hirsh,” he said when they were seated in the rabbi’s study. “You heard of his death, of course.”
“I don’t believe I knew an Isaac Hirsh,” the rabbi said with a tinge of embarrassment. “He wasn’t a member of my congregation, was he?”
“No, Rabbi, but he did live here and was part of the Jewish community, so I thought you might know him.”
The rabbi shook his head slowly.
“Well, he died Friday night, and his wife, or rather his widow, would like to arrange for him to have a Jewish funeral. Is that possible-I mean where he was not a member of your congregation?”
“Oh, yes. Although our cemetery is reserved for members of the congregation, we make provision for Jews in the community who are not members. Upon paying a small fee they are accorded nominal membership, which of course is exclusive of the price of a lot. However, as a resident of Barnard’s Crossing, Mr. Hirsh can be buried in the town cemetery, Grove Hill, which is nonsectarian. I don’t know what fees would be involved, but I could give him Jewish burial there just as well.”
The doctor shook his head. “No, I think Mrs. Hirsh would want him buried among his own kind. Mrs. Hirsh is not Jewish.”
“Does that make a difference?” Sykes asked quickly.
“It might.” The rabbi hesitated. “In that case, I’d have to be sure that the deceased had in fact been a Jew-that is, had remained a Jew.”
“I’m not sure I understand. His wife considers him a Jew. As long as I knew him, which is only this past year, to be sure, he never pretended to be anything else.”
The rabbi smiled. “It’s a religious rather than an ethnic distinction. Anyone born of a Jewish mother, not father if you please, is automatically considered Jewish, provided”-he paused to emphasize the point-“that he has not repudiated his religion by conversion to another religion or by public disclaimer.”
“To the best of my knowledge he belonged to no other church.”
“But you said Mrs. Hirsh was not Jewish. Was she Catholic or Protestant?”
“I don’t know. Anglican, I think, originally. At least the Anglican minister came to pay his respects while I was there.”
“Well, you see how it is. If they had come to me and asked me to marry them, I would have refused unless she converted. So perhaps the late Mr. Hirsh was converted when they were married. Tell me, why didn’t Mrs. Hirsh come, or send for me herself?”
“The shock of her husband’s death, Rabbi. As a matter of fact, she’s been kept under mild sedation. So as his section head, his boss you might say, she naturally turned to me to make the arrangements. And as for his religious status, I can only say I very much doubt if he would have undergone even nominal conversion to marry. He never cared much for all this mumbo jumbo-” he checked himself. “I’m sorry, rabbi, but those were his words; I was quoting him.” He had a sudden thought. “His name, Isaac, is essentially Jewish. He didn’t change that, so wouldn’t that indicate how he felt?”
The rabbi smiled. “You must have noticed when Mrs. Small opened the door that we are expecting a child. So our interest in names is more than just academic. We were just talking about that and decided the name Isaac, these days, is as likely to be pure Yankee.”
Sykes spread his hands in token of defeat. “Well, all I can say is that I feel he had no religious affiliations. Poor devil, he would have been better off if he had. He might have been alive today if he like the rest of the Jews had gone to temple Friday night.”
“Then his death was unexpected?”
“He was found dead in his garage Friday night. Patricia Hirsh notified me the next day, and I came right over.”
“Carbon monoxide poisoning.”
“Oh.” The rabbi, who had been lounging back in his chair, now leaned forward. His face became thoughtful and his fingers drummed a soft tattoo on the desk.
“You’re thinking of suicide, Rabbi? Would that make a difference?”
“I suppose it could be suicide,” said Sykes slowly, “although there was no note, and if he were going to take his own life, you’d think he’d have left some word for his wife. He was very fond of her. The police officially called it accidental death. You see, he had been drinking heavily-”
“You mean he was drunk?”
“Must have been. He had gone through half a bottle of vodka, about a pint, in a pretty short time. He probably blacked out, and the motor kept running.”
“He was a heavy drinker?”
“He was an alcoholic, Rabbi, but as long as he had been with us he was all right. It’s not that they drink much-only that when they start, they can’t stop.”
“And this did not interfere with his work? By the way, what was his work?”
“He was a mathematician in my unit at the Goddard Research and Development Laboratory.”
The rabbi nodded thoughtfully. “Our people don’t run to alcoholism. I am rather surprised that considering this-this affliction, that you hired him.”
“Well, there aren’t too many mathematicians kicking around, at least not of the stature of Isaac Hirsh. It may help to explain our attitude, and perhaps his problem, when I tell you that he was on the original Manhattan Project and worked with Fermi. When we dropped the bomb on Hiroshima, it raised hell with a lot of men there.”
“In that case, he must have been well along in years.”
“Early fifties, I should say. He got his Ph.D from M.I.T. in 1935. I got mine same place in ’43, in case you are wondering.”
“And yet you are the head of the unit and he was your subordinate?”
“Just that I got there first. I went to Goddard as soon as I got my degree.”
“Tell me, what did you call him?”
“Eh? Oh, you mean how did I address him?” He flushed. “Mostly, I’d call him Doctor. You see, he was quite a bit older than I. But sometimes when we were just sitting around talking-what was the expression he used?
“I see.” He thought for a moment. “It would help if I could visit Mrs. Hirsh. Would it be all right if I dropped over this afternoon?”
“I’m sure that will be fine.”
“Then perhaps you had better make your arrangements for the cemetery plot. You would have to see the chairman of our Cemetery Committee. If you like, I’ll call Mr. Brown. Do you know him, Marvin Brown, insurance business?”
Sykes shook his head. “If he can see me now I’d go right over there. Would you mind calling me a cab?”
“Of course.” The rabbi started out the door and then hesitated. “Oh, and by the way, if money is a consideration to the widow, and I suppose it is, a plain undecorated pine box is most correct according to our traditions.”
Marvin Brown was a live wire, a go-getter. He was a wiry terrier of a man who knew that time was money and that there were a hundred cents to every dollar. He had long ago learned the supreme lesson of salesmanship, that if you made one sale for every ten calls you could make two sales by making twenty calls. This doctrine he not only preached, he practiced. Over the years, his wife had learned to adjust to his pace. She planned her evening meal for six o’clock, knowing that Marve might not get to it until nine and then he might tell her he had grabbed a bite somewhere and wasn’t hungry.
“How do you stand it, Mitzi?” her friends would ask. “It would drive me up a wall if my husband didn’t get home at a regular time for his meals. And how does he stand it? Marvin’s no youngster, you know. He ought to begin taking it easy.”
And it worried Mitzi every now and then, because Marve was almost forty and it seemed to her he was working harder than ever. He had been a member of the Million Dollar Club for four years running now, and although nearly every year his sales earned him a trip to Florida or Mexico or Puerto Rico, even on his vacations he wouldn’t relax. Every day he played golf and went for a swim, and then he would see people around the hotel and talk business.
But, as Mitzi reflected, when Marve was out, or when he called to say that he would be home late, she was always sure it was insurance business, not monkey business. As a matter of fact, not only insurance business kept him busy; there were also the temple, and the Parent-Teacher Association of which he was vice-president, and the Community Fund of which he was a district leader. When she protested that with all his own work it was foolish of him to take on more, he pointed out it was really all insurance business. It meant that many more contacts, and the insurance business was all a matter of contacts. But she knew better-she knew he did these things because he liked to be active, he liked to race around. And she had to admit it seemed to be good for him.
“Honest,” she would say to her friends, “the children hardly know their father. The only time they can count on seeing him is Sunday morning when he takes them to Sunday school. The rest of the time, they’re usually in bed asleep when he gets home.” But secretly she was pleased. He was her man and he was working night and day to make a good living for her-just how good was attested by the winter trips, her mink stole, and the shiny black Lincoln they had finally worked up to.
Marvin Brown’s success was not due simply to his many contacts. He never went to see a prospective client cold. As he never tired of saying to the salesmen in his office, “Before you go to see your prospect, find out all you can about him.” So when his wife told him that a Dr. Sykes would be calling on him, and that the appointment had been arranged by the rabbi, he immediately phoned to find out what it was all about.
“He’s acting for the widow of Isaac Hirsh who died Friday night,” said the rabbi.
“Did you say Isaac Hirsh? My God, I sold him a policy less than a year ago.”
“Really? A life insurance policy? Do you remember for how much?”
“Not offhand. I think it was about twenty-five thousand dollars, but I could look it up. Why?”
“Tell me, Mr. Brown, did he have any difficulty passing the physical?”
“Not that I know of. That doesn’t mean anything, though. Some of these doctors don’t even touch the patient with a stethoscope. They ask him a few questions and if he looks all right and has a pulse, they pass him. What’s it all about, Rabbi? Was it a heart attack?”
“I think the police ruled it accidental death.”
“Uh-oh-there’s a double indemnity clause for accidental death on most of our policies. It’s only a small additional fee, so we usually write them. I guess the widow is mighty happy-I mean, it’s a lucky thing for her that he decided to take out the policy, although, as I remember it, I didn’t have to do much selling.”
“Well, Dr. Sykes is acting for the widow. Mr. Hirsh was not a member of our temple, but his wife would like him buried in a Jewish cemetery according to Jewish rites. She herself is not Jewish.”
“I get the picture, Rabbi. Don’t worry about a thing. Just leave everything to me.”