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The oilman cometh, his ears ringing

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Tom Burke screws the cap back on the fill pipe and drags the hose back to the oil truck.

At most stops along his route, the heating-oil deliveryman comes and goes in silence, but this customer comes out to survey the scene.

"You think I can afford lunch, or will the bill be too high?" the elderly man jokes.

Mr. Burke assures the man that he will be OK, to go ahead and treat his wife to lunch. After a bit more banter, he hands over the bill and heads back to the truck, grinning.

You need a little humor these days if you're in the heating-oil business. The fact is, customers aren't always so friendly - especially when word is out that prices could reach last year's record of more than $2 a gallon.

The stories of deliverymen

like Burke offer an inside look at the quirky economics of bounding energy prices. Yes, customers are angry, but so are wholesalers, upset over low supply. Caught in the middle are heating-oil dealers, who aren't doing so great themselves, with some forced to cut full-time workers and trim back on the number of trucks after last year's costly season.

Now, as some experts forecast a similar winter, homeowners and dealers are bracing themselves - especially in the Northeast, where the law of supply and demand hits the hardest.

In his tan work boots and blue uniform - with "Tom" embroidered on his shirt - Burke fuels dozens of homes each day - at $1.55.9 per gallon currently. He's got the countenance for it: easy-going and unflappable.

At another house, a gentleman in a silk bathrobe pokes his head out the back door while Burke unscrews the rusty cap on his fill pipe. The man explains how he was told to wait for the end of the summer to fill his tank, when prices would most likely be at their lowest. But prices hit their lowest in mid-July this year and have been rising ever since. He is stuck paying close to $220 for 138 gallons of heating oil.

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