The Third Line



Neighborhood: Bronx, Brooklyn


On a recent visit to a friend’s aging aunt who lives in a minuscule Bronx apartment crowded with plants, I was puzzled by her three telephones. Two of them rang several times, as did her microwave, alarm clock, and various other tingling appurtenances—the pitch of each of which she was immediately able to tell apart, though given the profusion of vegetation, they sounded rather like exotic birdcalls.

“Why the three phones?” I asked after a while.

“One’s for the folks I want to hear from, the other’s for the ones I don’t,” she replied matter-of-factly.

“And the third?”

“The third,” she said, “is for the unexpected.”

“But it never rings!”

“If it did,” she shrugged, “it’d stop being unexpected.”

Nodding politely, an involuntary twitch of my right eyebrow bespoke my bafflement, whereupon she told me the following story.

“Years ago,” she began, “I got this lump in my throat the size of a walnut that wouldn’t go away. With two young boys at home, I couldn’t afford to fall ill. Seated in the waiting room at the hospital, I worried myself sick, expecting the worst, when an unfamiliar bell rang. I turned around in time to see an elevator door open and a very pale-looking young nun step out. Not an ordained nun, but a novitiate, you know, the kind that hadn’t yet taken her vows, all dressed in white. Her face was as white as her habit.

“Seeing how distressed I looked, she comes directly over to me. ‘Why’re you so worried, dear?’ she asks.

“I burst out crying.

“ ‘I’ll pray for you,’ she says, and she puts her hand on my neck. ‘Deliver us from evil: For thine is the kingdom, and the power and the glory,’ she prayed. I wasn’t a believer back then, but not wanting to offend I just nodded. ‘Call if you need to talk,’ she said, handing me a card.

“It was a long and arduous treatment. After every chemo I heaved my guts out on the sidewalk. The radiation burnt my hair out. Still, in time, I got better. My hair grew back, but thank God, the cancer didn’t. Rummaging around in my pocketbook one day, I found the card. Maybe the prayers helped, maybe not! I wanted to thank her, so I dialed the number. An unfamiliar area code, I figured it must be a convent someplace upstate. It rang and rang with a funny faraway echo. I was about to hang up, when, finally, somebody picks up.  ‘Can I speak to Sister Mary Immaculate, please?’ I ask.

“Silence on the other end of the line.

“ ‘Does Sister Mary still live there?’ I pressed.

“ ‘My daughter, Mary Ellen, died ten years ago, God rest her soul,’ says a deeply distraught woman’s voice. ‘She was about to take her vows.’

“ ‘That’s not possible,’ I protested. ‘I saw her with my own eyes step out of an elevator and walk toward me nine months ago at Misericordia Hospital. Maybe they changed the name of the place.’

“ ‘That’s where she died, throat cancer,’ the mother replied all choked up. ‘Never smoked a cigarette.’

“ ‘I’m so sorry,’ I said.

“The line went silent.

“I got me another two phone lines over the years, for the reason I explained, but still keep the third one just in case.”

Just then a bell rang with an unfamiliar ring.

She let it ring three, four, five, maybe seven times, until I could no longer bear the anticipation.

“Which telephone is it?” I asked.

“It’s the doorbell,” she said. “I’m expecting a delivery.”


Peter Wortsman is the author of three collections of short fiction (A Modern Way to Die, Footprints in Wet Cement, and Stimme undAtem/Out of Breath, Out of Mind); a novel (Cold Earth Wanderers); a travel memoir (Ghost Dance in Berlin); a book of doctors’ profiles (The Caring Heirs of Doctor Samuel Bard); as well as two stage plays (Burning Words, and The Tattooed Man Tells All, which will be staged, in a German translation, at the Deutsches Theater in Göttingen in 2020).

Wortsman is also a critically-acclaimed literary translator from German into English, of works by Adelbert von Chamisso, the Brothers Grimm, Heinrich Heine, E.T.A. Hoffmann, Franz Kafka, Heinrich von Kleist, and Robert Musil, among others

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§ 3 Responses to “The Third Line”

  • Joy Manné says:

    Thank you for this marvelous story. I didn’t expect the ending at all. It’s the kind of wonderful, richly subtexted short story that I share with my writing friends. So much innocence. So much depth.
    Oh, yes, and I also see spirits.

  • Ghurron Briscoe says:

    Peter Wortsman’s The Third Line: Puzzled me with the truth of life & it’s delights in The Third Line today Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2020!

  • Peter Margolies says:

    Really good piece. Sharp.

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