Autumn Leaves

Felix Imonti


Whispering was how people were talking.  Small groups were clustering at street corners or in apartments around the city to share their anger.  You could feel the fever of revolution just by being near others.  A man suspected of being a member of the secret police and been dragged behind a building by several masked men and beaten until he was unconscious and nearly dead.  Rumors were flowing like the Danube in flood.  What was true or was someone’s imagination didn’t matter.  Everything was repeated as if it came straight out of the Bible.

Whatever the tumult outside, a group of students gathered in a student hall with pitchers of beer and an out of tune piano.  Autumn Leaves was the popular song that they kept having Magda bang out on the old upright.  Their voices rose in a less than blended harmony.  Underneath their youthful grasping of their common moment was a lurking sense that their joy was stumbling towards a vague disaster than none of them would escape.

A week later, they and thousands of others were gathering in the square in front of the secret police headquarters.  The whispering groups in dark corners had grown into a shouting horde in the open.  Numbers gave everyone strength and the strength gave them the courage to run out of control as a revenge hungry mob.  Whatever triggered the combined rage wasn’t clear.  It didn’t have to be clear.  It only had to appear to have happened to ignite the demonstration into a mindless rage.  Shots were fired.  A few fell and the surging mob swept towards the panicking secret police who were guarding the entrance of what had been a building of horrors.  The first ranks were overwhelmed and the crowd that only had numbers acquired guns.  Zoltan had gone to watch.  He was never political, but he was too often curios and that night was when his curiosity was urging him to follow the crowd into the square.  He stayed at the rear to observe until the sea of swarming people carried him forward.  When he reached the main door, he saw several corpses lying on the ground.  Their bloodied uniforms had been torn by whatever weapons people could find and by bullets from the guns seized from them and used against them.  Deeper inside the building, there were gun shots and screaming voices, screaming from pain and from rage.

It was long after midnight when Zoltan returned home.  He had spent his curiosity and slept dressed sitting in the living room with the lights off.  His two room mates had not returned from the streets.  They had urged him to join them.  He had chosen to only follow them at a distance.  He was sure that they would have been among the first to shed the tyrant’s blood.

He awakened long after the sun had risen, made coffee and cut two slices of bread that he spread with margarine.  His room mates had still not returned.  Somewhere too close, he heard the rattle of a machine gun.  Who was holding it was what he didn’t know and was not so curios to discover.  He went down the stairs to the coin telephone and called Magda’s number.  The telephone wasn’t working.  He waited for three trucks full of soldiers to disappear around a corner, took his bike and started to Magda’s home.  She was still living with her mother and had remained at home at the desperate urging of the frighten woman who had seen too much war only a decade before.  She had watched people pushed against walls and shot just for being where there were soldiers eager to kill.  Among them had been her husband and Magda’s father.

When Zoltan went into the lobby of the building, the people who had gathered there wanted to know what news he had to share.  Had he been at the demonstration at the secret police headquarters?  Had he seen the mob break into the building?  When he said that he had been a part of all of it, he was elevated to a hero.  Someone shouted to drive out the Soviets and the puppet government.  Everyone had become an instant revolutionary inside the safety of the building.  Younger people certain of their immortality went to join the battle.  Magda was waiting in the apartment for him.  She grabbed him in the embrace of a lover and a worshiper of a hero.  He had been in the middle of it and she wanted him to take her to where she could see the fury at its hottest.  The pleadings of her mother had become a distant ignorable sound.

Zoltan had been proclaimed a hero and could not disappoint his fiancé.  He had to take her through the streets being careful not to meet groups of soldiers who might shoot first and not worry about it later.  Zoltan took her to the university campus where the fever would certainly be the hottest.  As they approached, he saw one of his room mates.  He was carrying an AK47, wearing an ammunition belt and flashing his ferocity. 

“We need help at an emergency medical center,” someone shouted.  Magda was studying to be a laboratory technician and felt that qualified her to treat the wounded.  Zoltan and Magda kissed and they parted.  She rushed to the medical center and Zoltan joined his room mate.

“I know where you can get a gun,” he told Zoltan who had become a soldier without wanting to be more than an observer. 

A nearby military post had been taken over by soldiers who had stripped off their epaulettes to show that they were with the people.  They had broken open the arms stores and were passing out AK47s and ammunition.  No one question if the recipient knew how to use the weapon.  When a soldier handed Zoltan a gun, he took it and the ammunition to make him a real soldier.  His room mate had become his commander.  The only thing that qualified him was his audacity and his eagerness to be a hero in the midst of death and destruction; and that was the only qualification needed.

By the end of the day, they had gathered five more warriors.  As darkness came, they found a position in a building that gave them control over a main street.  The fighting seemed to be far away, but the war was shifting without warning.  Most of them dozed off, until the two left as guards awakened them with the warning that men were approaching.  Friend or foe, they didn’t know.  A moment later, fifteen men moving in a careless line were passing.  They were the enemy and the seven revolutionaries opened fire on them.  Four of them fell.  The others returned fire and broke into a run back in the direction from where they had come.  The seven warriors could not believe their success.  They had experienced their baptism of fire and had come away victors. 

They went out to check their success.  Three of the Soviet soldiers were dead.  The fourth had been wounded.  He pleaded for his life.  He assured them that he did not want to be there.  He was forced to fight and wanted to be home.

He was presenting the seven with a dilemma.  What should they do with him. They would have to decide before his comrades returned with reinforcements.  They had no prison for him and they couldn’t march him around with them.  Their remaining options were to free him or to kill him.

“We should vote on it.  That is the democratic way” and they all agreed.  They must practice their new democracy.

The wounded soldier could not understand the discussion being conducted in the language of the occupied country, but he must have grasped that it concerned him.  He must have understood that they were measuring his life.

There were five votes to kill him; and Zoltan had been one of the majority.  He was standing behind the shivering man who was whimpering like a small dog that Zoltan’s parents had.  When the vote was final, Zoltan didn’t wait for the others to decide.  He shot the man twice in the back of the head and watched his brains and skull spraying onto the ground.  The revolutionary’s finger had fired the weapon before his mind had given the order.  He had surrendered to the revolution without being certain that he believed in it.

They were preparing to move away when two more men arrived.  They were carrying several bottles of gasoline.  One of the seven knew them and vouched for their loyalty.  They had seen a tank guarding the entrance to a small square and were certain that they could destroy it.  They were invited to help themselves to the weapons dropped by the dead Soviet soldiers and the group moved through the dark streets to where the tank was.  Zoltan wasn’t sure what the plan was, but the new arrivals appeared to have worked out the details.  He with one other of the original seven took a position in the doorway of a house from where they could see the outline of the tank in the darkness.  The others took up positions elsewhere while the men with the bottles of gasoline climbed up onto the roof of a building.  Zoltan saw the flash of fire as the three burning bottles flew out towards the tank.  The first struck it just below the turret on the right front.  The others hit and spread a blanket of fire over the machine.  The hatch opened and men leaped out.  One was burning and he threw himself onto the ground trying to extinguish the flames.  AK47s opened fire from several directions and the men fell on to the road.  The burning man and tank turned the scene into a stage.  There was an explosion as ammunition in the tank detonated.  The building next to the flaming machine caught fire and the residents fled.  The band of revolutionaries were sure that the fire would attract Soviet or loyal government forces to investigate and ran from their victory.

“Who had one the battle?”  It was the question that Zoltan was asking himself.  They had destroyed the tank and the tank had destroyed the homes of how many people.  Who could call that a victory?

His doubts were his only, because the band joined with others and sought out Soviet forces.  There were running battles across the city.  Zoltan did what the others were doing.  He hid, fired, and ran.  When he was resting, he wondered what Magda was doing.  After several days of thinking about her, he told the others that he was going to see her.  He would return in a few hours and they agreed.  They might not be there in another hour, but that was how the currents of violence was carrying them.  He could always join others in their common cause.

He found Magda at the emergency center.  She hadn’t slept in several days and was moving like a machine doing her duties.  When she saw him, she broke down crying.  She had seen so many people dying.  Even before he found her again, Zoltan had made his decision and headed back towards where he knew several cars were parked.  One of them had a nearly full tank of gasoline.  He tore out the ignition wires and got the engine started.  He drove back to the emergency center and ran inside.  He grabbed Magda’s arm.  “We are going.  I can’t stay here anymore.”

“What has happened?”  She was too tired to resist.

“I murdered a man.”

“Who did you murder?”

“I don’t know.  He was a Soviet soldier.”

“It is war.  You are supposed to kill in a war.  You didn’t murder him.”

“Yes, I did.  He was wounded and had surrendered.  I blew off his head.  I am a murderer.”

“Where are we going?”

“Austria.”  People nearby heard him.  As Zoltan and Magda got into the car, strangers jumped in with them.  They were there and they weren’t going to move.  He was going to have to take them.  Six of them were jammed into the Lada and Zoltan started driving.  He had heard that the border was open.  It might be their only chance to escape and he took the risk. 

The overloaded car kept scraping the road whenever they hit a bump.  The exhaust line was partially torn away.

“Everyone will think that we have a tank,” he tried to sound confident and relaxed.  He wasn’t sure what was around the next corner or over the next hill.  When they saw the Austrian flag flapping merrily in a slight breeze, they cheered.  Against all of the odds, they had made it and escaped from the chaos that had seized the country.

The border guards directed them to an office where they would have to register as refugees.  “Are you married?”  A clerk asked Zoltan. 

“Soon.”  The woman smiled slightly at him and he was directed to board a bus.  A moment later Magda came out of the office, except that she was put onto a different bus.  Zoltan was certain that it would be going to the same place.  There was nothing to worry about.  He was sure there was nothing to worry about.  They had escaped despite all of the dangers and would share their new freedom. 

At the crowded refugee center, he was pushed into a barrack with other men.  He saw women going into other facilities and was certain that Magda was among them.  When he was able to reach the registration office, he checked the lists of names.  She wasn’t on the lists.  He was feeling a surge of panick.  He asked some of the women, but none of them knew her.  None of them knew where anyone was being sent, including themselves.  They were where they were and that was the most that anyone knew.

He was in the barracks for two weeks and he had not learned anything about Magda.  The only news was that the Soviets had swept into the country and the fragile revolution had collapsed.  He could no longer go home, but there was no time to think about it.  He was taken to the air port and put on an aircraft leaving for London.  As he walked along the isle to a seat, he checked the other passengers.  Everyone was a stranger, including himself.  Everything was happening to him without anyone asking him if that was what he wanted.  If they had asked him, he wouldn’t have known.  He would have said only that he wanted to be lost in the teeming confusion with Magda.

She had been taken to another center somewhere outside of Vienna.  She asked about Zoltan, but no one knew where he was or who he was.  There were all of those lost souls in search of a place and he was just one more.  There was too much suffering and no time for anyone to care.  She would have to find him when the confusion had settled into something resembling normality.

It was two days after Zoltan had been taken to England that Magda went by bus with a group of others to the airport and was put onto an aircraft.  She had agreed to go to the United States. In the terminal building of the airport in New York, she asked if there was any news about Zoltan.  A man in a uniform checked a list of names.  Zoltan had not been on her flight.  She knew that.  She wanted to know about other flights.  Had he arrived the day before or ten minutes earlier, but he just walked away.  It was not a lost and found office.  It was an immigration office.  Checking her documents and registering her was his only responsibility.  Finding a lost almost husband was her problem.

Did anyone hear her?  Did anyone care?  She was a dead leaf caught in a winter gale.  She was put onto a bus to Hartford Connecticut without knowing where it was or what was waiting for her. She knew only a few words of English and had never heard of what was becoming her new home.  It was late in the evening when she arrived at a YWCA.  She was offered a bowl of soup and a sandwich and taken to a room with several strangers. 

Zoltan had been taken to Oxford and given a room in a boarding house.  In the morning, he was brought to a hospital.  He had been given a job washing floors.  He didn’t speak English and wouldn’t need to know the language to clean floors and empty trash containers.  After that, he was considered integrated into British society which meant learning the new language and scrubbing floors until he could do something else.

Magda had been offered a job doing domestic work for a family in Hartford.  The man was an executive with an insurance company.  She would have her own room and there were two teenage children to help her learn the new language.  While she tried to adjust to her new life, she began to contact Hungarian groups across the United States, Canada, and England.  The question was always the same, “Do you know about Zoltan?”  The answers were always the same, when there was an answer.  “We have no record of him.” Zoltan was writing the same Hungarian organizations and asking about Magda.  He was getting the same answers.

They both wrote to their families and to the family of the other.  It took six months for Zoltan to receive a reply.  His father wrote only that they were well and had no news about anyone else.  Magda could feel her mother weeping onto the paper and said only that she was well.  Even the cat was well, but she knew nothing else.

Zoltan scrubbed floors during the day and studied English in the evening.  After a year, he found a job with a construction company.  The money was better and he found a room mate to share a larger apartment where they had more privacy and comfort.  It made it easier for him to study English.  He tried again to find Magda, but felt as he sent the letters that it was all for nothing.  He doubted that she was still trying to find him. 

Magda saw her skill with the new language improving.  She learned to drive and drove the children to school events when their mother was too busy, but she could not remain a maid and a half nanny.  The people were kind to her, but kindness wouldn’t build her future.  She had begun in the quiet of her room at night to accept that her future would be without Zoltan.  After so long, he might not even remember her.

On a Sunday afternoon, Magda told the people that she wanted to look for another position.  The man had been expecting her to begin testing her wings and found a position for her as a teller at a bank.  He even co-signed for her to rent a one bed room apartment and gave her some unwanted furniture. 

In the evenings, she returned to school to resume her training as a laboratory technician.  It was going to take her several years, but she wasn’t in a hurry.  She had settled into a routine of forgetting the past and regretting the future.

As four years slipped away unmissed, she found a position in a hospital.  A couple of times, men asked her out for the evening; and she had accepted.  When they wanted to turn a date into a closer relationship, she drew away.  Having another man making love to her would be to betray Zolton, although she was sure that he was probably married and enjoying the company of another woman.

Zoltan’s employer saw promise in the young man and shifted him to a better position that gave him the time to resume his studies of civil engineering.  He set his target the certificate that would declare him to be an engineer and reached it after five years.  He didn’t even have to look for a position.  The construction company welcomed him to their executive staff.  Sometime in the quiet of his apartment, he thought about Magda.  Was she married?  Did she have children? Did she think about him?  So many questions and no answers that he didn’t invent. 

It was eight years after she had arrived in Hartford that Magda met a man who was an administrator at the hospital where she worked.  He was ten years older than she, and had not married.  Their common loneliness united them and they married.  Love was not something that Magda thought would be possible and settled for a little more than friendship.

They did all of what married couples do.  They bought a house and went on vacations to Florida in the winter and to the beach in the summer.  Magda bought a piano and played popular songs for them.  Sometimes, when she was alone, she played Autumn Leaves and sang it to herself in French as they had done in the student center back in October of 1956 before they were swept away by the revolution.

Zoltan could never look at another woman with any interest of romance.  Instead, he had a house with a garage in the back where he rebuilt classic cars and sold them to appreciative automobile enthusiasts.  It filled his evenings and weekends.  With a wrench in his hand and a car raised on blocks, he had the machine to offer him company.  The roar of a rebuilt engine coming back to life was his music, although he sometimes hummed the old song to himself.

He didn’t think about the past or the future.  His life was the office and the garage, until the director of the company where he had been working for thirty years called him into the office, offered him a drink and told him with deep regret that he would have to end Zoltan’s employment.  The company had fallen on very hard times and was being forced to reduce wherever it could.  He was offered a generous severance package and a glowing reference and felt no regrets.  He had a Morgan that he had just acquired waiting at home for his wrench.  He had rescued the machine from its journey to a scrap yard.  Over the years, he had been saving his money and wasn’t concerned about being without a job.  He could spend twelve hours a day working on the machines instead of only three or four.

After a fresh coat of paint, a happy buyer had driven the fifty-year-old Morgan away.  Zoltan had decided that he needed to find a new direction for his life when he saw an ad in a professional journal for a civil engineer position in Montreal.  He knew someone there.  The man was a fellow Hungarian who he had met in London and had been urging him to follow him across the ocean.  “The New World is where the future is” his letters kept shouting.  Zoltan had no bonds to where he was.  Where he lived was all the same to him.

He sent his resume to the telephone company in Montreal and received an invitation for an interview.  He had sold the house and had acquired a visa.  He had money in his pocket and a profession in his head.  He was hired and blending into his new life and job was far easier than it had been when he arrived in England all of those years earlier.  As soon as he settled into his new life, he joined a Hungarian society.  Most of the members had fled the country at the same time that he and Magda had escaped.  Of course, he asked everyone if anyone had known Magda.  None had heard anything about her. 

Magda left the cemetery and drove home where friends had prepared food for the visitors who were coming to offer their sympathy.  They stayed for an hour or two.  She had been married to Stanley for twenty-two years and it was over.  Once again, she was alone.  She was thinking about what Stanley had said a week before his death.  He had felt from their first day together that she was never there.  Something always stood between them.  He had loved her knowing that he was loving a manikin.

When the last visitor left, Magda opened the piano and started playing Autumn Leaves.  She was singing it in French as she had those years ago.  The revolution that had destroyed her life was nearly thirty years ago to the day.  Halfway through the torturing song, she threw herself onto the keyboard pounding it with her fists and screaming.  Thirty years had been wasted.  The future was already wasted.  Her husband had given her his love and she had returned an empty smile and a frozen heart.

Next day, she telephoned a real estate agent to sell the house.  She wanted only a small apartment where she could not lose herself wandering from empty room to empty room.  It, though, would have to have space for her piano and she would have to be able to play it without troubling the neighbors.  She still had her job to fill the days.  The nights would have to take care of themselves as they came one by one.

Her one routine pleasure was to go once a week to the Budapest Deli for lunch to speak Hungarian with old friends and to enjoy the traditional dishes.  She urged the owner to put a piano in and promised to entertain the other customers, but he laughed at her.  Who ever heard of a piano in a deli.

Most of the visitors were regulars.  Magda knew everyone by name, except for a couple who dropped into the deli for lunch.  By chance, they were passing, saw the name and decided to give it a try.  They too were Hungarian visiting friends in Hartford.  They had just arrived from Montreal. 

What began as a lunch became a two-hour chat as strangers became friends and shared their common roots.  They too, like most of the Hungarians that Magda met, had fled the Soviet soldiers and the failed revolution.  These visitors, though, had been married and had been kept together. 

“If I had lied and said that we were married, we would have had thirty years together.” and she related how they had been separated. 

“There is a man by that name in our social club in Montreal.”  They didn’t know him well.  They knew only the name and that he had arrived only a year or so before from England.

Magda opened her wallet and showed them a fading old black and white photo.  “Does he look like this?”

“It could be him.  Of course, this man is much older and people change with time and the photo is not very clear.”

Magda begged them to take her photo and address and telephone number.  She asked for the name of the social club and prayed that they would keep their word and talk to him.  A week passed.  Two weeks passed.  She was thinking of driving to Montreal to see for herself when the telephone rang at nine o’clock on a Saturday night.

“Magda?”  The voice said uncertain.

“Yes.”  The voice was almost familiar.  She needed to hear more of it.

“It is Zoltan.  I have your photo.  I know that you are the Magda that I still love.”

They spoke for three hours on the telephone.  It was settled that she would fly to Montreal as soon as she could get a ticket.  Three days later, they were holding each other in the Dor Val terminal.  As they drove into the city along the Metropolitan Highway, they sang Autumn Leaves and wept.  Next day, they acquired a marriage license and married before something else could separate them.  The newly married couple found a new apartment and began to plan their future.

Old business had to be settled and Zoltan went with his bride for what was to be her last time in Hartford.  They packed what she would ship to Montreal including the piano and gave to thrift stores what they couldn’t sell. 

“I must do one thing alone,” Magda told Zoltan who did not question her.  Magda went to the cemetery to place flowers on Stanley’s grave.  She thanked him for his love and prayed that he had forgiven her.

Felix Imonti has published the history book, Violent Justice and over a hundred articles in the fields of international politics and economics. After living in the United States, Europe, Central America and Japan, he has returned to Canada where he spends his days and nights investing and writing. He is nearly finished a political novel.

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