WITH THE DARKENING approach of another ice-hard Saturday night in western Maine, the man on the telephone was pleading for help, again. His tank was nearly dry, and he and his disabled wife needed precious heating oil to keep warm. Could Ike help out? Again?
Ike Libby, the co-owner of a small oil company called Hometown Energy, ached for his customer, Robert Hartford. He knew what winter in Maine meant, especially for a retired couple living in a wood-frame house built in the 19th century. But he also knew that the Hartfords already owed him more than $700 for two earlier deliveries.
The oil man said he was very sorry. The customer said he understood. And each was left to grapple with a matter so mundane in Maine, and so vital: the need for heat. For the rest of the weekend, Libby agonized over his decision, while Hartford warmed his house with the heat from his electric stove's four burners.
"You get off the phone thinking, 'Are these people going to be found frozen?'" Libby said. No wonder, he said, that he is prescribed medication for stress and "happy pills" for equilibrium.
Two days later, Libby told his two office workers about his decision. Diane Carlton works the front desk while her daughter-in-law, Janis, handles accounts. But they share the job of worrying about Ike, whose heart, they say, is too big for his bantam size and, maybe, this business.
The Hartford case "ate him," Janis Carlton recalled. "It just ate him."
Libby drove off to make deliveries in his oil truck, a rolling receptacle of crumpled coffee cups and cigarette packs. Diane, the office's mother hen, went home early. This meant that Janis was alone when Hartford stepped in from the cold. He had something in his hand: the title to his 16-year-old Lincoln Town Car.
Would Hometown Energy take the title as collateral for some heating oil? Please?
Maine was in the midst of its Republican presidential caucus, the state's wintry moment in the battle for the country's future. But at this time of year, almost nothing matters here as much as basic heat.
While federal officials try to wean the country from messy and expensive heating oil, Maine remains addicted. The housing stock is old, most communities are rural, and many residents cannot afford to switch to a cleaner heat source. So the tankers pull into, say, the Portland port, the trucks load up, and the likes of Ike Libby sidle up to house after house to fill oil tanks.
THIS WINTER HAS been especially austere. As part of the drive to cut spending, the Obama administration and Congress have trimmed the energy-assistance program that helps the poor — 65,000 households in Maine alone — pay their heating bills. Eligibility is harder now, and the average amount given here is $483, down from $804 last year, all at a time when the price of oil has risen more than 40 cents in a year, to $3.71 a gallon.
As a result, Community Concepts, a community-action program serving western Maine, receives dozens of calls a day from people seeking warmth. But Dana Stevens, its director of energy and housing, says that he has distributed so much of the money reserved for emergencies that he fears running out. This means that sometimes the agency's hotline purposely goes unanswered.
So Mainers try to make do. They warm up in idling cars, then dash inside and dive under the covers. They pour a few gallons of kerosene into their oil tanks and hope that it lasts. And they count on others. Maybe their pastor. Maybe the deliveryman. Maybe, even, a total stranger.
Hometown Energy has five trucks and seven employees, and is run out of an old house next to the Ellis variety store and diner. Oil perfumes the place, thanks to the petroleum-stained truckers and mechanics clomping through. Janis Carlton, 35, tracks accounts in the back, while Diane Carlton, 64, works in the front, where, every now and then, she finds herself comforting walk-ins who fear the cold so much that they cry.
Their boss, Libby, 53, has rough hands and oil-stained dungarees. He has been delivering oil for most of his adult life — throwing the heavy hose over his shoulder, shoving the silver nozzle into the tank, and listening for the whistle that blows when oil replaces air.
Eight years ago, he and another Dixfield local, Gene Ellis, who owns that variety store next door, created Hometown Energy, a company whose logo features a painting of a church-and-hillside scene from just down the road. They thought that with Ike's oil sense and Gene's business sense, they'd make money. But Libby says now that he'd sell the company in a heartbeat.
"You know what my dream is?" Libby asked. "To be a greeter at Wal-Mart."
This is because he sells heat — not lumber, or paper, or pastries — and around here, more than a few come too close to not having enough. Sure, some abuse the heating-assistance program, he says, but many others live in dire need, including people he has known all his life.
So Libby does what he can. Unlike many oil companies, Hometown Energy makes small deliveries and waves off most service fees. He sets up elaborate payment plans, hoping that obligations don't melt away with the spring thaw. He accepts postdated checks. And he takes his medication.
When Robert Hartford called on the after-hours line that Saturday afternoon, asking for another delivery, Libby struggled to do what was right. He cannot bear the thought of people wanting for warmth, but his tendency to cut people a break is one reason Hometown Energy isn't making much money, as his understanding partner keeps gently pointing out.
"I do have a heart," Libby said. But he was already "on the hook" for the two earlier deliveries he had made to the couple's home. What's more, he didn't even know the Hartfords.
ROBERT AND WILMA Hartford settled into the porous old house, just outside Dixfield, a few months ago, in what was the latest of many moves in their 37-year marriage. Robert was once a stonemason who traveled from the Pacific Northwest to New England, plying his trade.
Those wandering days are gone. Robert, 68, has a bad shoulder; Wilma, 71, needs a wheelchair; and the two survive on $1,200 a month ("Poverty," Wilma says). So far this year they have received $360 in heating assistance, he said, about a quarter of last year's allocation.
Hartford said he used what extra money they had to repair broken pipes, install a cellar door, and seal various cracks with Styrofoam spray that he bought at Wal-Mart. That wasn't enough to block the cold, of course, and the two oil deliveries carried them only into early January.
There was no oil to burn, so the cold took up residence, beside the dog and the four cats, under the velvet painting of Jesus. The couple had no choice but to run up their electric bill. They turned on the Whirlpool stove's burners and circulated the heat with a small fan. They ran the dryer's hose back into the basement to keep pipes from freezing, even when there were no clothes to dry.
And, just about every day, Hartford drove to a gas station and filled up a five-gallon plastic container with $20 of kerosene. "It was the only way we had," he said. Finally, seeing no other option, Hartford made the hard telephone call to Hometown Energy. Panic lurked behind his every word, and every word wounded the oil man on the other end.
"I had a hard time saying no," Libby said. "But I had to say no."
When Hartford heard that no, he also heard regret. "You could tell in his voice," he said.
Two days later, Hartford drove up to Hometown Energy's small office in his weathered gray Lincoln, walked inside, and made his desperate offer: The title to his car for some oil.
His offer stunned Janis Carlton, the only employee present. But she remembered that someone had offered, quietly, to donate 50 gallons of heating oil if an emergency case walked through the door. She called that person and explained the situation.
Her mother-in-law and office mate, Diane, answered without hesitation. Deliver the oil and I'll pay for it, she said, which is one of the ways that Mainers make do in winter.
©2012 by The New York Times. Reprinted with permission.