Like a fortuneteller, the woman with the parrot came into my life as I was working at the bank one evening. She only looked about 60 years old, but her age was compounded by some unseen malady. Her mannerisms were not typical, and I had a hard time understanding her various questions. Meanwhile, her equally strange male companion wandered around the lobby in front of my teller's station. His hunched, shriveled body shook with Parkinson’s disease but his eye contact was steady whenever he spoke with me, which wasn't often because he was so shy. It was as if the two were perfectly matched to form an able mind and body between them. I was so taken by the sight of them I didn't notice the bird at first.
Not being typical customers, they seemed to loiter even though they had no business with the bank I worked for. They had walked in from the street and the woman asked for directions to another bank. She walked away and paced a bit behind the growing line of people, then got back in line, seemingly unsatisfied with the information I gave her. That's when I heard the screech.
Is there a bird in here? I thought. My eyes scanned the crowd, but somehow I already knew the source of the noise. Sure enough, a green parrot was perched on the woman's hand, camouflaged by her colorful, flowing shawl. The bird pecked impatiently at her gold hoop earrings.
"Do you have a bathroom I could use?" The strange man asked. He had snuck up to the counter next to the customer I was helping without me noticing. I'd barely heard his mousey voice.
"Yes, it's that way," I said, pointing.
"Thank you," he said, pattering off. The genuine tone of his sentiment struck me. I'd heard the words a hundred times every day, but rarely did they mean anything.
The line of customers dwindled and the gypsy-looking woman stood before me once again.
"The directions you gave us – you said to take the bus, but we were hoping to walk," she said.
"Well, it's about six miles to your bank and there is no good way to walk there. There's no sidewalk."
"Yes, but isn't there some way?" she pressed. The parrot pecked at her earrings, sleeves and necklaces with growing impatience. The woman didn't seem to notice. The beak clamped down hard on her earlobe and she continued to smile.
"SQUAWK!" the bird interjected between pecks, as if saying, "Let's get out of here."
I was hoping they would do just that. My patience was wearing thin, but this couple obviously had more struggles in life than I. The least I could do was oblige their simple questions. I pulled out a pen and paper, and drew a detailed map.
"Now the road goes here, you see?" I said. "The bus stops here. If you want to walk, you're going to have to follow the river to the west – that's the only sidewalk. Otherwise you're walking on the shoulder of the highway for five miles. The sidewalk will deposit you here, at this intersection, and you'll have to walk back along the frontage road for a half mile to reach your bank."
"Thank you," the woman said. "You're very kind." Again, her genuineness struck me. The spirit of her thankfulness was like a spell. I would have done anything she asked in that moment.
She left my station but halted once again before the door. She conferred with her man and came back to me as more customers poured in for the after-work rush.
"Could you please help us with one more thing – where is a good place to eat around here?" she asked, smiling as ever. The parrot was now pecking at her yellow teeth framed by bright red lipstick.
I was struggling to ignore the bird. After a pause, I caught up to my wits and gave her a suggestion.
"That's so far. May we have some of your candy for now?"
"SQUAWK!" the bird chirped, still pecking her teeth. I wondered why it had become so fixated on the teeth, and how she could stand it.
After another befuddled pause, I gave them some Dum-Dums.
"Thank you, you're very kind, very kind, indeed," the woman said, and I was grateful for my own patience as well. One of my greatest beliefs is that if we humans ever have a chance of saving ourselves from obliterating each other, we need to improve our level of empathy for strangers. Yet I am human and rarely live up to my ideals.
"In return for your kindness, would you like me to show you where you really are?" she asked with a wink.
Suddenly I was not standing behind a counter at the bank. I was on a rugged mountain slope, standing shoulder to shoulder with a countless multitude of people as if we were gathered for some event. There was no stage ahead in the distance, though – just a looming, craggy summit, the apex of the slope on which I now stood. The exact shape of the peak was indistinct, however, as it was clouded over under a thickening sky of black clouds. Around me were simultaneous shrieks of delight and moans of agony. The mass of people around me swayed like the sea. I noticed everyone was only moving in one direction – toward the summit – but they were all in each other's way. They pulled on shoulders and jackets, whatever they could grab to help them gain purchase on the slope. I staggered to keep my balance just to stand in place. Something crunched under my foot. It was a skull! I lifted my foot in grotesque surprise, but I couldn't lift it far because hands were pulling on the cuffs of my slacks. That's when I saw the greatest horror of all: I was standing on other people!
It was a great, pulsing mound of writhing bodies. The entire mountain might have been nothing but people piled on people – a rolling mass of heads and arms. Some underfoot were alive, some dying and some dead, but I couldn't do anything to help them. My survival depended on keeping my balance, which seemed to require every bit of concentration. Even in the time it took to realize my situation, more people were already pulling me down, trying to climb over the top of me.
"GAAAH!" I screamed. My arms flailed like a drowning victim until a bony white hand with red, pointy fingernails gabbed my wrist and pulled me up.
"Here," said the fortuneteller. "It is a rare person who stops clambering for the summit long enough to help another person gain a step. Do you see them? Most of these people will struggle to climb that unreachable peak their entire lives. They will trample on top of every back and shoulder they can until they, too, fall underfoot. Only a few out of a hundred may stop to help anyone but themselves. Those few are the only ones who will find the true summit – a place of stability."
"What do you mean?"
"When you help someone, you take it on faith that he will help you rather than take advantage of his new position later. Help enough people, and you reach an island of trust and love, the only safe position you'll find in this world of material greed."
The gypsy winked as the green bird tugged on her gold hoop earring.
The customer service bell brought me back to attention at the teller station.
"I need you to cash this check," a fancily dressed man said.
"Sure, did you fill out a deposit slip?"
"Well, no, I don't have an account here but I need to cash this check before I catch my flight."
"I'm sorry, I can't help you."
The man got mean. I've noticed desperation does that to people.
"Look at me! I'm worth more than you'll ever earn! I can vouch for this check but I need it now."
"I'm sorry, sir, it's just policy. Now I need to help the next person."
I motioned for the next customer to come forward but the man didn't leave.
"It's obstinate people like you who don't have the proper sense to know who is worth helping," he hissed, leaning in toward me. Spittle hit my face, but I didn't have a chance to retort. The mob of hurried customers had already forced him out of the way.