''Hold the magnifying glass closer!'' Cousin Henry orders. ''And don't wiggle.'' Midnight. He is too tired to see straight. After working a twelve-hour day, he would rather be practicing arpeggios on his battered violin, or writing his thriller, or preparing a speech for tomorrow. But four splinters are lodged in my palms, and armed with needle and tweezers, and needing a chisel and saw, he is trying to extract them.
Taking a deep breath, I look away toward the starry window, and realize that I judge the importance of great men by their willingness to do small things for others.
The splinters, for instance, had pierced my palms this afternoon as I was stacking the wood in the backyard. The tree cutters I'd come upon up the street were perhaps larger in girth than in global importance, but they dumped two cords for the price of one, so I am grateful.
Only there arose the need to split and stack the wood. Promptly on this need came Atanas, an Important Slavic Writer, to the door. We were supposed to be editing a manuscript of poems he had written in exile. Catching sight of the mountain of trunks and stumps of trees in the driveway, he insisted without delay, ''I am expert woodcutter,'' and dusted the cobwebs off my sledge and wedge. ''Logs are more vital than poems.''
He began to split the fat wood faster than I could stack the logs in the old shed, which - quicker than thought - I had to clean out first. A decade of ancient paint cans, gaptoothed rakes, a rusted grass cutter from a time when we had grass, unmended fencing, burst bags of topsoil, and at the bottom, a lively nursery of angleworms in the muck which I shoveled out onto the neglected garden - representing a decade of sins of omission which I despised confronting. I began to stack the fragrant chunks of locust and cedar logs into the almost immaculate shed for a winter of warmth and poems. But here I am at midnight, locust splinters in my fingers and cedar in my palms, and Cousin Henry pursuing them instead of his arpeggios. . . .
I think of another grateful midnight, a Thursday Is Trash Night midnight. Alexander, whose job it is to carry out trash, was asleep. I thought my guest was also asleep. At seventy-one the world-renowned ethnogeographer Henry Field was pausing at my way station after riding a camel across the Gobi Desert, and he needed his rest. But while I was washing the dishes, he slipped out to carry all five trash cans up the snowy driveway. At dawn we served hot chocolate to the garbage men.
On many another snowy midnight, Moshe, the Israeli ambassador, shoveled my car from that same driveway. And once from the sands of the Negev.
And I think of Alexis, the Russian prince, who brought bouquets of honeysuckle and Queen Anne's lace but quickly turned to and cleaned the summerhouse when we discovered the children had used the living room as racetrack for their fleet of box turtles.
I think of Rubinstein trying to teach me on Grandma's piano, as if I were a baby Mozart, and not being offended when I said I'd rather be a writer.
And Ismail, the Malay scholar-politician, who spent days lecturing me on Southeast Asia. . . . And Gordon, the World Banker who bailed out my swamped sailboat and frequently me as well. And Cousin Henry, who does all this for me, and more.
And. And. And. In the Grand Central Terminal of my life, it seems as if commuter crowds of individuals, important or unimportant, have chugged through, leaving behind their valises of kindness, parcels of generosity, lumpy bags of wisdom in my locker, whose door remains open.
Here, from a Malay pantun: ''Debts of gold I can repay/Debts of kindness I bear all my life.''
In my childhood there was Great Aunt Emma, whose Rainy Day Shelf was a cornucopia of consolation prizes. And who, precisely at the moment one most needed a boost, extended an invitation for an excursion that might be to the end of the earth, or merely of the streetcar line.
''But how can I ever keep up with your treats?'' I despaired, aware of my small allowance and earning power.
''Nonsense,'' she answered, twirling her black parasol against the August sun. ''Never any tit for tat, except sometimes with the superficial niceties which social custom requires. All my eighty years people have been kind to me, and it is the most important kindnesses that go unsung and unrepaid. The only solution I've found, my dear, is to try to pass on some bit of help to someone else down the line.''
So here is Cousin Henry, something after midnight, removing my last splinter. He offers to boil me a cup of camomile tea, and send me to Crete in the spring.
But first we have a crisis: high cries from the top of the sycamore. Oreo the black-and-white cat, chased there by a dog or raccoon, cannot get down. Cousin Henry drives a mile where he knows there is an enormous ladder and holds it while I climb up to rescue the grateful cat.
When we come in, the fire has been laid with fresh logs.
A note from Alexander apologizes for having left the wood cutting to someone else; he was late getting home because, while he was on the night shift at the supermarket, a little Costa Rican boy was hit in an accident, and he had to stay and comfort him 'till the parents could be located, hours later. But the kid was OK. He promised to finish cutting the wood tomorrow.