YESTERDAY I bought a bed. A queen-size futon and a double-size wooden platform. The boxes of wood were manageable. The futon was a hundred-pound beast. The man at the bed store struggled hard to get it into the back seat of my car. ``You might need someone to help you get it out,'' he panted. But all my friends were at the beach and I was not going to wait. I parked at the curb outside my apartment building. I should have known the beast would be impossible to remove.
We fought. I ran from one side to push it, to the other side to pull it, back and forth, back and forth in 92-degree sunny, humid Boston heat. Suddenly a man walked by, rotund, about my father's age, and asked if he should push as I pulled. ``Sure,'' I said.
In the struggle the armrest on the back door came off, I ripped my T-shirt, and I could barely see through the sweat pouring into my eyes. We got the bed out, but there I was stuck in the middle of the street with a big white plastic-covered blob that I couldn't move.
I couldn't hesitate; I didn't have a choice. ``I'm just up on the first floor,'' I said to the guy, not looking directly at him, but sort of implying that he had gotten himself into this, and was expected to finish. ``Would you mind?''
I didn't wait for a reply as I dragged the blob onto the curb, up to the door.
``You grab the bottom,'' I said.
He smiled and lifted it like it wasn't a chore. I was perspiring more than he; all I could think about was scratching my back where sweat was trickling down.
``Is this good?'' he asked at what appeared to be the top of the steps.
``Just four more steps,'' I said. ``The stairway turns.''
He was beginning to sweat.
``Of course I picked the hottest day of the summer to do this,'' I said, trying to make him laugh.
``Oh, no you didn't,'' he smiled. ``Wait 'til tomorrow.''
We walked down the stairs together, I thanked him, and drove my car around the block to find a parking space. I thought how grateful I was to the stranger without whose help I would be sleeping on my new bed on the sidewalk.
How do you thank someone like that?...
TWO summers ago I arrived in Japan with an enormous backpack and two heavy suitcases - enough to last me the year I expected to live there. I had to ascend a long flight of steps to get to the next level of the Tokyo airport.
But I couldn't do it alone. Nor could I speak the language and ask for help. Everyone rushed past me in a hurry, and the Japanese voice on the loudspeaker made me feel even more alien.
Suddenly a Japanese man - slightly smaller than I, about my father's age - picked up my two suitcases and started up the steps. A moment later his wife walked up, smiled sweetly, bowed politely, and said something in Japanese. Then she blushed and spoke in English.
``Are you American?'' she asked.
``Yes,'' I said.
``Where are you going?''
``To Kyoto, I hope.''
``My husband will help you.'' she said. He was way ahead of us. ``Our daughter is in America now. She is your age. We miss her very much.''
The couple directed me to the right train. The woman and I sat together and had the type of discussion I would soon become accustomed to: small talk using all the English words she knew. She had started studying the language a year ago when her daughter went to America.
When we got to the Tokyo train station, the man with my suitcases pushed through the rush-hour crowd all the way to the waiting area for the overnight bus to Kyoto.
I couldn't have done it without them. They bowed politely.
How do you thank someone like that?
By being there to receive the favor, perhaps. And keeping on the lookout for oversized mattresses and weary travelers.
After I parked my car, the rotund man rounded the corner with a brown bag in his hand. He smiled when he recognized me. ``I couldn't have done it without you,'' I said.
``Well,'' he said smiling, pointing to the bag that held take-out food, ``Now I know I've really earned this.''
I remembered back to the Japanese couple, how I bowed to them and wished I could tell them in their own tongue just how grateful I was. Instead I smiled.
``We miss our daughter very much,'' the Japanese woman had said again. ``Will people help her in America?''