Winter Afternoon

Artwork by Alex WalshJacqueline Doyle


Manka curled up on her white linen couch with a glass of Pinot Noir and opened the new New Yorker to the fiction page. On the left there was an illustration of a snowy landscape, with dark trees silhouetted against a pale gray sky. And on the right, the title and the author’s name, Aleksander Kozlowski. She flushed, her face hot, and set down her wine glass so abruptly that liquid sloshed over the rim onto the coffee table. She looked again. “Winter Afternoon” by Aleksander Kozlowski.

But he was dead. The story had been published in Polish, there was no translator on the title page. Surely he hadn’t translated it himself. And he was dead, she thought again, distracted. She leafed through the story, hands trembling, and found the name of the translator in small italics at the end of the story. Janet Bartholomew. She’d never heard of her. She could look her up on the Internet, but of course it wouldn’t do any good. The story was already translated. It was in the New Yorker. Manka wondered what the circulation of the New Yorker was. Vastly larger than Fiction Quarterly, where her own story had appeared. Or Geneseo Review, where the one before that had appeared. She liked to think she had a modest following. That readers who liked her stories checked her website to find more. Her website. Should she take it down, or would that be too obvious an admission of guilt? She should have changed the title of the story, but then she’d never imagined … she’d always dreamed there would be a book. A slender volume of short stories with one of the better small presses. Elegant, titled Winter Afternoon after the closing story. Her best, she would modestly accede, when asked by an interviewer.

Manka’s hands felt like ice, and she rubbed them together before buttoning her thin lamb’s wool sweater up to the chin.

It had all started innocently enough. After some fallow years when she’d barely written, she’d managed to make time for her writing and adhere to a strict schedule. Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays she taught, and stayed in her faculty office late into the evening until papers were graded, preparations for the following week were finished. Thursday and Friday mornings she sat down at her desk promptly at eight a.m., ready to write. She kept those days clear of engagements so that she could work straight through if she was inspired.

But she found herself markedly uninspired, staring at the empty computer screen day after day. Manka carried on a lot of e-mail relationships with friends across the country and in Central and Eastern Europe, and she became absorbed in e-mails instead of writing, checking for new correspondence every hour or two, distracted by the task of replying to news or acting on requests for favors. A friend and fellow translator sent her a list of Polish writers who hadn’t been translated into English. “You should look at these! There’s so much rich material here.” She printed out the list and tucked it into a folder on her desk.

Kozlowski, when she unearthed his stories, had spoken to her. From the beginning Manka felt that she herself could have written some of the descriptive passages in his stories, created some of his characters. Pawel, the middle-aged bureaucrat dissatisfied with his job, yearning for companionship. Ludwika, the farmer’s daughter guarding her secret dreams. Andrzej, the alienated writer whose wife harangued him about their bills. Irina, the writer’s wife, who still pined for her childhood sweetheart. When she started working on translations of Seasonal Tales (out of print for some time—the university librarian had difficulty obtaining it through inter-library loan), she dreamed of Kozlowski’s characters, and woke up each morning refreshed, ready to inhabit their world.

Manka hadn’t been clear about international copyright law protecting a book out of print. She also wasn’t sure if plagiarism was illegal, or simply dishonorable. Kozlowski wasn’t alive to sue her, and surely his heirs in Poland, if there were heirs, would be indifferent. It wasn’t as though she’d earned any money from the stories. She should have published them as translations. She almost had published them as translations. But she’d changed them, improved them, taken out the dated political references, embellished descriptions, even added a character and two new scenes to “Spring Idyll.” In the end she’d convinced herself that the stories had become her own and were no longer his.

Colleagues praised the stories. “So exciting!” Gwen said. The only other fiction writer in the department, Gwen had a blog on writing, but no recent publications herself. “You’re so lucky to have that Old World background,” she added, as if Manka’s subject gave her an edge. Neither of them was tenure-track. Both worried that they might be supplanted by younger, better-published writers. “Good work!” Gerald, their department chair, said, clasping Manka’s shoulder. “That’s what we like to see!” Gwen narrowed her eyes and nodded. Manka was sure Gerald hadn’t read either of the stories—no one in the department was interested in contemporary literature—but she savored her triumph nevertheless. Gwen had scurried out of the mailroom, checking her watch as if she were late for an appointment.

There was a brief flurry of congratulatory emails after the publications. “Deft.” “Fully realized.” “Your best stories! Your writing is getting richer and deeper!” The friend who’d sent her the list didn’t seem to recognize her sources. “I’m so glad to see that you’re writing about Poland again,” he wrote to her. “There’s so much Polish life that needs to be preserved.” Basking in the afterglow, she’d almost forgotten Kozlowski, whose dusty hardcover book, pages brittle and flaking, languished unread in some obscure corner of the stacks in a far off library. In a way she was doing him a favor, resurrecting his characters in a new land, for a new audience.

In her fifties, Manka had lived in Manhattan almost twice as long as she’d lived in Poland, which she barely recalled. The black and white pictures and fading color Polaroids in a photo album she never opened any more seemed to have supplanted actual memories. She’d been ambitious when she arrived at the age of nineteen to study Comp Lit in CUNY’s grad program, and had never intended to return. After her mother’s death, there was no reason to go back, even for visits. She’d carved out a life in New York, with an adjunct position here, a short-term visiting professorship there, a rent-stabilized apartment on a dingy block near the more fashionable area of the upper West side. She was lucky to have it, and the jobs. So many Ph.D.s in her field had found less. Tall and lanky, with dark hair sprinkled with gray, thick glasses and a Polish accent, she appealed to employers as the real thing, someone who’d been there and could teach Russian and Comparative Literature, surveys of World Literature, Composition classes with international flair. She dressed as they imagined a European professor would dress, in tweed pencil skirts, cashmere sweaters with pearl buttons, always with a silk scarf at her throat.

She attracted a certain sort of New York intellectual man, men who read the New York Review of Books and considered her gracefully aloof. Jewish men asked her about Poland in the war, but it had been before her time and she really had nothing to report. “We didn’t talk about it,” she said, throatily, leaving the impression of secrets concealed. And it was true. Her mother had never talked of it, though memories of the war and her father, who departed some years later, shortly after Manka’s birth, hung in the air, a low-lying fog. She had suspected her mother of anti-Semitism, but had never confronted her. Hers had been a generation eager to forget.

While her mother’s existence had been devoid of romance, there had always been men in Manka’s life. Some of them serious, but she was uninterested in children, or settling. For the past seven years she’d been seeing a married NYU film professor whose wife had chronic fatigue syndrome. They sometimes attended the symphony, or a foreign film, tried a new restaurant that had been profiled in the Times. Two nights a week, Nathan arrived bearing a bottle of wine. He was witty, cultured, a good conversationalist, a skillful lover. Now and then she entertained the fantasy that his wife might die, they might marry, spend their retired years together. But that seemed long off. She was well enough satisfied with their current arrangement. He always left before midnight.

“Did you see this week’s New Yorker?” he asked, as they settled in over crackers and Brie and a particularly good Merlot. The bouquet of purple iris that she’d arranged in a fluted glass vase glowed in the soft light of early evening. The abstract oil painting on the opposite wall, pearly gray overlaid with eggshell white, melted into the shadows.

“Yes, it’s around here somewhere.” She looked around vaguely, as if to locate it, when she knew it was locked in the middle drawer of her desk.

“There’s a story this week I thought you’d like. A translation from Polish.”

“Really. I’ll have to find it. Did you read it?”

“Not yet. I’m swamped with midterms right now, and there’s the book.”

Like everyone Manka knew in New York, Nathan was writing a book, extremely self-absorbed, and always eager to talk about his project.

“How’s that new chapter going?”

“It’s a bear, just a bear.”

Manka hooked a long leg over his lap and leaned forward to put her arms around his shoulders. “Maybe we should forget about writing tonight.”

But she couldn’t. Everyone she knew read the New Yorker, and she kept waiting for a comment, a look, something that betrayed knowledge of what she’d done. She felt nauseous when she woke every morning, and picked at her food. In classes she lost track of what she was saying, and found herself staring at the students, twice dismissing her composition class early. “I want you to think about what we discussed as you work on your next essay. Proofread for comma splices, please.”

The next issue of the New Yorker came out, and the next, with no unusual emails or remarks. Gwen had mentioned the story, only to observe, “You’d think with all the living writers they could publish, they’d have plenty of material. It helps to be a dead male foreigner, I guess.” Nathan never told her whether he’d read it. Was it possible that no one really read the New Yorker, that they just skimmed the articles and cartoons? Or, more likely, that no one had actually read her own stories when they came out?

When the department chair called her into his office, she imagined it might be about her schedule for fall semester, or the new guidelines for adjunct work load. Gerald liked to talk to faculty members individually when there were policy changes. “Just dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s,” he always said. “Don’t want any misunderstandings up the road.” Part-time Freshman Comp instructors were now being required to read end-of-semester student portfolios in unpaid holistic scoring sessions, but she wasn’t part of that group, as far as she knew.  

He shut the door behind her and returned to his desk, where Manka could see copies of the New Yorker and Fiction Quarterly, a neat blue rectangle with authors’ names in black italics on the cover. Her chest tightened.

“Oh. You noticed the similarity too,” she said gaily, hoping to forestall whatever Gerald had to say. “Quite remarkable. Of course we’re writing about the same milieu.”

He cleared his throat and swallowed. “It’s come to my attention … It’s been brought to my attention …”

Probably Gwen, the bitch. Who else would care? Who else would talk to Gerald of all people about it? Manka had feared public unmasking. A note in a cultural blog, perhaps, or a translator’s newsletter, or a rumor at a cocktail party that would spread to more cocktail parties. But she hadn’t imagined the department hearing anything. So provincial, so uninterested in contemporary letters. Long Island might as well be a hundred miles from her life in Manhattan.

“I’m afraid these may be more than similar,” he said, straightening in his chair. The light reflected off his bald head. Manka looked at the wall behind him, where his degrees were framed on the wall. Dentists did that, but academics didn’t. She supposed Gerald didn’t have much else to show for his years in the profession.

“Really? Perhaps I read the story by—what’s his name? Kozlowski?—years ago in Poland and simply forgot it. I was astonished too.”

“Jan Reed in the library tells me you checked his book out two years ago. That you ordered it through Interlibrary Loan.”

Manka flushed. Was everything on record then? Was she to be humiliated by a cretin like Gerald?

“I read so many books. I’ve forgotten.”

“I’m afraid the university doesn’t look kindly on academic dishonesty. We have a reputation to uphold. We need to set an example for our students.”

She gripped the sides of her chair, waiting for what he would say. She wanted the conversation to stop but she didn’t know what to do next. Should she offer to step down? Surely that was a bit dramatic. And she couldn’t afford to. She couldn’t support herself without her meager income from this undistinguished university that certainly had no reputation to uphold, indeed should be grateful that someone of her stature was willing to teach there.

Gerald looked profoundly uncomfortable. He checked his watch, and cleared his throat again. “I’ve consulted with the Dean, who’s spoken to the Assistant Provost, and it’s been decided that your contract won’t be renewed next semester.”

“I think you’re overreacting, Gerald. You know my student evaluations have always been good.”

“It’s not a matter of the quality of your teaching. It’s a question of academic integrity.”

How dare he impugn her integrity? Manka nodded stiffly and stood. “I may need to consult counsel.”

“The Assistant Provost has requested that you sign this form stating that you will not bring any legal action against the university in this matter.” Gerald slid a document stapled inside a blue paper folder across the desk. “In return, we will maintain strict confidentiality and provide references for you in whatever job search you undertake.”

She stared.

“Of course I’ll mention your student evaluations and collegiality. I hope you understand.”

Manka felt the walls closing in. She was short of breath, she needed to be alone to think but there was no time, no dignified way out that she could see. After a long moment of silence, she raised her chin, her expression neutral. Picking up Gerald’s pen, she signed the agreement, gathered up her teaching materials, and left.

She took two sick days in the week that followed, and cut her office hours short when she returned. She avoided her colleagues, who had never been very collegial anyway, suburban nonentities with plodding wives and husbands, children in Little League. She saw Gwen only once, at the other side of the parking lot, and forced herself to give her an unconcerned wave. There was no point in giving Gwen the satisfaction of a confrontation.

Soon she began cancelling evenings with Nathan, pleading headaches and papers to grade. When the semester was over, she broke things off with him.

“I don’t understand, Manka. I thought what we had was fine, for me and for you.”

“It’s a matter of integrity,” she said. “I can’t stop thinking about your wife.”

“She doesn’t care. It’s not like she has any energy to devote to the marriage. I’ve only stayed with her because of the children.”

“Your children are grown, Nathan. Maybe I want children. Or more time for my writing. I don’t know. Maybe I want more of a life.”

“We had an understanding, Manka.” His expression turned ugly. “Are you planning to adopt or something? You aren’t kidding yourself that you could get pregnant now, are you? Or that you’re going to make it as a writer now?”

“I gave you my best years.” Her voice shook with emotion. She half realized she wasn’t talking about Nathan at all, but about the book that would never be published, the job she had taken for granted, the contrast between her past and her uncertain prospects for the future.

“That’s bullshit, Manka. Complete and utter bullshit.”

Even as he slammed the door, she knew that she would feel his absence. But it was too late to undo what she’d said and done.

That summer she picked up a section of Freshman Comp at a community college in Brooklyn, and an adult education class at a YMCA, waiting for the MLA Job Information List to come out in the fall. July and August were unusually hot, and the fan in her living room did little more than circulate the heavy, humid air and fetid odors from the street below, where tenants had thrown their garbage into construction dumpsters. She logged onto the Bank of America website frequently, double-checked the dwindling funds in her checking and savings accounts, and eyed the IRA she hadn’t planned to touch until retirement, wondering whether she should have borrowed money from Nathan. She missed Nathan even more than she’d expected to, a visceral need that had her clutching her pillow at night, stifling sobs. She missed his self-absorption, the way he rubbed his head when he was thinking out loud, how his hair stood on end in the back. She still noted plays or movies they should see together, and then realized with a jolt that he was gone. She’d heard he was out of town, vacationing in Provence with his wife. Provence! Manka had never been on a trip with Nathan and now she minded, very much. How would he have responded if she’d trusted him more? Or was it her cool reserve and lack of demands that had attracted him to begin with? She wished now that she’d told him the truth—the truth about losing her job, not about the stories. She was no longer quite sure what the truth was about the stories, and had half convinced herself that the imitation had been inadvertent. Kozlowski had been no more than a strong influence. He wasn’t such a good writer, after all. Why would she copy him?

She’d stopped answering emails and invitations and was surprised at how quickly her isolation was established. Her life and network of social contacts had felt so substantial and stable. She had never imagined it could all disappear in a matter of months. No one seemed to miss her. People who could afford to had fled the heat of the city, but no one extended invitations to the Hamptons, or Martha’s Vineyard, or the Catskills, or asked why she hadn’t attended the translator’s conference in Boston. Every night she drank a bottle of wine and read, sometimes with the drone of the TV in the background, PBS concerts or CNN. She awoke with throbbing headaches, wearily dragging herself to Brooklyn on her teaching days, sometimes staying in bed until afternoon on the days she didn’t teach.

When fall finally arrived, Manka readied herself for the job market, revising her c.v., tallying her skills and past experience. She found herself drawn to the literature of her youth in Poland and the books she had read in graduate school. She had been so ambitious, so sure of herself, so devoted to art! She tried to muster that energy in the twenty-eight job letters she sent out when the MLA List was posted in October. “I am particularly excited by my European literature surveys, but equally devoted to the important task of teaching students to write …” She wondered if they believed a word she said.

But several apparently did, and in December she found herself preparing for a trip to the MLA Convention in Chicago, where she had three interviews lined up, all at colleges she’d never heard of before. She’d heard of very few colleges in the Midwest, however, and knew better than to expect interviews with Michigan, or Wisconsin, or the University of Chicago after such a lackluster career. She was embarrassed to be angling for entry-level positions after more than twenty years in the profession, but that seemed to be all that was available, and at least they were tenure-track. She craved security, and the anonymity of new places far off the beaten track of what she knew. There would be snow. Possibly there would be birch trees like the ones she’d known as a child.

She was dreaming of Poland for the first time since she’d left, bright shards of memory that left her dazed when she woke up. The steamy kitchen in their small apartment, fragrant from the large tin pot of vegetable soup simmering on the stove. Her mother darning a blue sock, squinting in the dim light cast by the standing lamp with the betasseled shade. The neighbors peeling potatoes on their balconies in the morning, gossiping with each other and calling out to their children, who bounced balls against the courtyard wall below. Herself as a very small child hiding in the gigantic mahogany chifforobe in the front room. And later, when she was older, running through a birch forest in winter, chest heaving, face wet with snowflakes, someone or something in hot pursuit behind her.

She’d begun to think about Kozlowski’s stories again, and the fictional Poland that had attracted her as so deeply familiar. It wasn’t her Poland—her mother’s rural childhood and young womanhood in the city of Wroclaw perhaps, which she had never spoken of. Had Manka wanted to claim those memories, incorporate them into her own identity? Or was the explanation for borrowing her countryman’s words simpler? A desire to be recognized as a writer. A bid for admiration and acclaim. Which had been paltry enough, in any case. She recalled lines from a poem by Milosz that she’d read years ago. “To win? To lose? / What for, if the world will forget us anyway.”

She hoped none of the interviewers would ask about the stories. She expected they might not, since none of the job descriptions included creative writing. She wanted to forget them. Forget Poland. Move on to the next chapter, whatever it turned out to be.

The stories didn’t come up in the interviews, though one Medieval Lit professor asked whether she considered herself a teacher or a scholar or a writer. “Oh a teacher first, and then a scholar. Definitely,” she said. No one even asked where she was from, instead exhibiting avid curiosity about New York. “I guess you get to the ballet pretty often, and museums, and have some damn good restaurants. Are you ready to leave that all behind?” She was polite, and evasive, professing herself ready to settle down some place quieter, where the pace was not quite so frenetic. She threw up her hands in mock dismay as she hesitated over the word “frenetic,” and then gave a charming smile meant to include her listeners in her reaction. Who would want to live in Manhattan when they could live in Mooretown, or Meskweegan, or Oak Falls? The professors flashed looks at each other and nodded, well satisfied.

The more prestigious universities interviewed in suites, she knew, but her interviews had all taken place in small hotel bedrooms. The Oak Falls interview had gone particularly well, she thought. They had offered her the only chair in the room, while the four of them perched awkwardly on the ends of the two double beds. All of them male, two of them bearded. Two sporting tweed jackets with suede elbow patches, one dressed in a three-piece suit and bow tie, and one—the department chair—in jeans and hiking boots. None of them young. They didn’t seem surprised that a woman of her age had applied for their position as a Generalist.

“You’ll be doing our comp classes and Intro to Lit as well as upper-division European literature surveys. We don’t have much of an M.A. program, mostly teachers looking for ESL certification.”

“Of course introducing students to the classics can be very rewarding,” she murmured.

The professor with the bow tie echoed her. “Extremely rewarding. Mind you, most of our students have had no exposure at all to European lit, just the American lit they were assigned in high school.”

One of his colleagues chimed in. “Once in a while we have a student or two in the ESL program interested in translation. How would you feel about sponsoring Independent Studies for them?”

“You know I’ve translated some Milosz poems, don’t you? And some Marguerite Duras when I was in grad school. I’ve got quite a few languages at my disposal.”

“Yes, your c.v. is quite impressive …”

“Translation,” she mused. “It’s a way to make it new, as Pound said. He certainly depended on translations for inspiration. It’s hard to say whether some of his early poems are translations or his own.”

One of the professors nodded vigorously, as if he’d been about to make the same point.

“In a way it’s a kind of erasure or forgetting,” she continued, fingering the lavender silk scarf at her throat. “Taking the words out of their original context and forging a new one. It’s very American, I think, that sort of cultural appropriation and amnesia.” She thought about the excisions she’d made in the Kozlowski stories. In general she’d found that Americans were uninterested in any history but their own, and even then, only in historical events that had occurred since their puberty. It was a country barely in its adolescence after all, with no past to impede its progress, at least no past they cared to remember.

Back in New York she sat in her apartment, waiting for the telephone to ring. She checked to make sure the phone was working. She logged onto her email, scanning the glowing screen for messages. Surely they would get in touch. Pacing her living room, she imagined her new life. Her antique desk and shelves of books and elegant couch in new, more spacious surroundings. Vivaldi on the stereo. A new set of pale silk curtains. She would cultivate orchids. She had always intended to cultivate orchids.

In Oak Falls she would have no past or place of origin. She would be a fifty-something woman with an accent, well-dressed, not unattractive, who had once lived in Manhattan and before that in some other country. Was it Russia? Some place in Eastern Europe? East Germany? It wouldn’t matter. No one would ask. Or if they did, they wouldn’t remember her answer. It was all so long ago and so foreign. Her life would become a new translation of the original, with all of the subsidiary characters edited out, along with the protagonist’s backstory, historical context, triumphs and mistakes.

She wished she had someone to talk to, and thought fleetingly of calling Nathan, but their relationship had ended so badly. It already seemed so long ago, whatever intimacy they’d shared.

Manka sat on her white couch with a glass of Pinot Noir, leafing through the New Yorker, staring at the snow and advancing twilight outside the window, contemplating the vast expanse of the U.S. that stretched to the West from New York. White blurring into white with a spot of red. She raised her half-empty glass to the future. “To America,” she whispered, and closed her eyes.

Jacqueline Doyle’s stories and essays have appeared in Southern Humanities Review, Quarter After Eight, [PANK], South Dakota Review, Confrontation, Monkeybicycle, and elsewhere. Her work has earned two Pushcart nominations, a Best of the Net nomination, and Notable Essay citations in Best American Essays 2013 and Best American Essays 2015. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and can be found online at

One Reply to “Winter Afternoon”

  1. Kathleen Betsko says:

    Beautifully written, deeply felt. I was moved to tears by the main character’s use of emotional detachment as self-medication. The rapid acceleration of Manka’s fall from high places due to vague past sins, the downward spiral from her elegant but unanchored, personal and professional life, into one of total isolation, was breathtaking and painful. I imagine it must have felt something like that to kneel before the guillotine: Quick, tidy and, if not completely bloodless, well…at least someone else had to clean up. Congratulations to Ms. Doyle.