Tom Doolie was a nasty little man. He had a nasty family, too: a bitter wife and two nasty daughters that no one liked. And Tom knew a nasty deal when he saw one. But he was a shrewd man too, and he knew he could make it right.
So they packed up everything they owned in grimy little boxes. It took four trips in the old green pickup to get everything moved. They left one of the old easy chairs, which had more holes than stuffing, and some of the girls’ unloved toys, and a few busted crates and other things they had no need for now. He had a nasty thought as the whole family departed for the last time the home that was also a gas station and a garage, “I hope it burns.”
Tom knew he was a nasty man. He didn’t mean to be, but he was pretty sure it was genetic. And as for his wife, he was pretty sure it ran in her family too. It didn’t matter, you just had to keep on in your own nasty way. He had greasy hair, that was thinning, almost gone, and a little mustache that always seemed incipient—as if it were about to come together, but never did. Until now, this had been his life’s trajectory, too.
He had a 7th grade education—his had been the last generation to be able to get away with that, and worked at the feed store (now closed). Mrs. Tom Doolie—Annette—was a receptionist at the baby food factory (also now closed). Tom had driven her there in the green pickup every day.
It was the same washed-out mineral green his parents’ (both deceased) house had been. The one with the gas station and the garage. Both long shut. The one Tom had just sold. His grandfather had built the place on a road that had the bad luck of being superseded by a larger one, which itself as cut off by the highway, so that cars didn’t even come by accident. After they had both lost their jobs, he had contemplated opening the garage, but what did he know about repairs, and who would be his customers, anyway? The whole affair didn’t net much, but he got enough to make a down payment and the first few months of a new life.
I don’t know how you are going to make it, I would have said. What makes you think you’re constitutionally suited for customer service, running a store, selling groceries to people, the food they put in their bodies. I certainly wouldn’t have trusted it. And yet, people did. Or maybe trust never entered into it. Tom unsmiling, actively scowling, in his little white jacket, a single tiny blood stain, behind the deli counter. The one register with its miniature belt run by Annette, and eventually, a second little belt and register run by the elder daughter after school.
I guess Tom and his family just brazened it out.
It was the old A&P in a town thirty miles from their home, it had been shuttered a few years, these were tough economic times. The squat building had room on top, perfect for an owner-operator. Although he barely owned it. A nasty deal—it came complete with everything, fixtures, the registers—but every month was a big nut to meet. An owner-financed mortgage, Still, Tom had figured it to the penny, and he even put a little bit in the bank, even if the girls had to do without many new clothes.
They were friendless. But who needed friends. They had each other. Spite was enough to keep them going. Sure, there were whispers.
“Witness protection,” the locals suggested.
The fruit and vegetables were hit or miss, mostly miss. Everything was narrow there, the drop ceiling felt lower than it should. The cans felt smaller, even, no matter what it said the ounces were. It all suited Tom and his family, but you felt like a giant pushing the little carts.
A year came, a year went, and then another. Nobody believed they were still in business, although even if the quality wasn’t quite in evidence, it beat the long drive to the next nearest supermarket, in a pinch.
Tom would stand out in the back, smoking, and then come back in and throw some bagged ham at you with a grunt.
And he persevered.
Other than his family, I don’t even know if anyone knew his name. Only “Doolie” was stitched on the jacket—Annette had embroidered all their uniforms.
It was around that time that something clicked for the town. One of its historical figures, a much-maligned early American writer had recently come into vogue (in a very small way) because of some new works that had been discovered which revealed an early abolitionist sentiment. There was a festival planned at the old High School. Someone from the city visited and discovered a few choice pieces in the old junk shop: worth tens of thousands. Suddenly it became chic to visit. People in town discovered it could be profitable to operate a “Bed & Breakfast.”
Someone suggested to Annette—not Tom, who was unapproachable—that the grocery ought to stock some better things, to appeal to the more cosmopolitan tastes of the town’s new visitors. If she ever told Tom, he refused to change a thing. There’s reason to doubt that the message to Annette was delivered with any courtesy, given how even the women in town would talk about her: “She’s a real ‘see-you-next-Tuesday.’” Then a pained smile. A shaken head.
One person who seemed aggressively bothered by the grocery store’s stagnation in the face of the fantastic developments in the town was Peter Brown. Now Peter, here was a sympathetic man. A widower, his wife had died of cancer relatively young. Peter looked younger than 60, and always dressed smart. He had recently upgraded to a convertible, and had some kind of interest in several of the Beds & Breakfasts around. He also had good reason to know Tom’s full name, since Tom had signed the contract for the grocery store with him.
Was it odd that Peter started wearing a sweater tied by its arms and over his shoulders, or wearing sunglasses inside? People took it in stride. He was sympathetic, even if he had started putting on airs. Everyone had, I mean, since things had started to look so much less bleak.
“Listen, Art,” he said to the codes inspector, “I don’t like it any more than you, that grocery is an eyesore, right in the center of town. But a contract is a contract.”
“But, Peter,” Art said, with that characteristic squint—he always looked like he was trying to solve the world’s hardest math problem with no paper or pen—“if you have a buyer lined up for those two properties, won’t those people just take the money and leave?”
It was never Tom and Annette, it was always “those people,” and I get it. They were like walking cold-shoulders, and I used to get the shivers when they passed. I’d kick my feet together a little faster just to get across the street.
“They witnessed a mob hit,” someone said. “The government is what set them up with the grocery store, right?” This was a common refrain.
“You see,” said Peter to Art, “how they won’t do a damned thing for the town. How they won’t make nice for the tourists.”—this wasn’t quite true; Tom Doolie had recently bought a donut machine, and was now making nasty greasy little donuts which he’d sell for 99 cents with a bitter coffee in tiny styrofoam cups; and the tourists seemed to like them—“Anyway, they’re being totally unreasonable. I think,” said Peter, “the developers might even back out.”
“Back out?” asked Art, his confusion turning to pain.
The developers planned to take the adjoining building, which still had many original details from the 1800s, and demolish the grocery, extending out that building, and putting hotel rooms above, and open a fancy shop and restaurant below. It was just the final touch the town was asking for. Peter had already put together an LLC so that people could share in the money. (“Not only a share of the purchase price, but some of the revenue, too, a percent,” Peter promised.) It was partly true.
“I wish I’d never signed a contract with them,” Peter said. He scowled. This was rare for him, he usually had such an open, engaging face. He was a nice guy.
“You thought it was the right thing,” said Art.
Just then, they both turned their heads. Through the window panes which in the old office warped the view like bottle-glass, the misshapen little form of Tom Doolie seemed to hover as it crossed the street.
“I mean,” said Peter, “he is always on the verge of default. Right now they’re two months late. A couple more months…” he said, trailing off.
“A couple more months?” said Art. He was a little slow on the uptake.
“Well, a couple more months and—”
Just then, the door opened, and as if to illustrate or punctuate Peter’s thought, which was helpful for Art, the county judge strode in, gouty, grunting, and holding his own share to invest in Peter’s LLC.
It was distasteful, everyone agreed. But there was nothing crooked about it. It all happened on the up and up. A contract is a contract, and you have to pay what you owe. It seemed, at first, that that nasty little man Tom Doolie would brazen through the whole affair, but he finally broke down. They had to drag him out of the court.
Was he crying? People say he was.
It comes down to belief, doesn’t it—and nobody could be faulted for believing Peter Brown over Tom Doolie. The absurd story about Peter asking for cash payment and the missing receipts. There was no doubt, the Judge said, that Tom had missed enough payments to be in default—and what about the evidence, stacks of yellow legal pads with Tom’s nasty little handwriting on it, day after day—well, the county didn’t have time or resources to sort through all that for something so straightforward. And if he had kept the back of the grocery cleaner and not gotten shut down for those several months, too, maybe he could have made his commitment, but really, who is to be faulted here, but him?
That’s what people said. Anyway, finally, the center of town would have something, something good. Was there a lot of money to be made? Of course.
People like that, though, people said, they’d be back on their feet the next day. Look at the way they lived, there, like—like aliens, like aliens wearing people suits. You could almost see in, like a strange hollowness around the eyes.
Tom was hollow the day they came to cart out all the fixtures. Peter had let them live on until the end of the month, but he said, they’d have to dismantle the grocery, begin to prep things for the development that would now be free to begin.
Just wait, he told people, when they send their representatives. The ones I’ve met. Smooth customers. Just wait and see. And such suits! Jewelry, watches. Maybe the plans would be even bigger.
God, that nasty family up there, in the top windows, shifting like ghosts. Shadows. Couldn’t they just go already, wherever they were going to scurry?
It was right out one of those windows that Tom Doolie hung himself. It was right around the end of October. He looked like a scarecrow, were his clothes always that ill-fitting, or was it just how the body stretched?
The big yellow light in front of the store cast his hanged shadow across the street.
Before they got the body down, some kids had outlined it in chalk. This little form stretched like a giant through the center of town.
Peter Brown was always a stand up, sympathetic guy. So when he disappeared, it was almost as shocking as Tom Doolie’s rope act.
There really had been some developers, but it turns out he had been bilking them just the same as he bilked the people in town. Anyway, the brief flourishing had already started to fade around the time Tom Doolie died. The county repossessed both buildings—failure to pay tax—someone got them at auction, but the grocery, emptied out, was cheaper to cut into two apartments.
Peter made it to the islands. There’s rumors he sent some post cards. There’s an old poster of him at the post office; FBI, even! It’s gotten pretty faded.
Nasty deal, people said, about the whole thing. Nasty deal.
Benjamin Harnett is a poet, fiction writer, historian, digital engineer, and union organizer. His work has appeared recently in Poet Lore, Entropy, the Evansville Review, Moon City Review, and at Maudlin House. His short-story "Delivery" was Longform's Story of the Week; he was shortlisted for the Bridport Prize in Poetry; and has been nominated for a Pushcart. He lives in Beacon, NY with his wife Toni and their collection of eccentric pets. He works for The New York Times. Photo by Terry Jinn (Flickr).