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Patience on Route 249


The iron takes longer to notice. Skillets hang on hooks like heavy shadows, blackened from years or centuries of flame. Williams speaks the obscure language of their undersides: She knows that the size of the cross marked on a Griswold pan, or the angle of the lettering, may mean a difference of hundreds of dollars. A tiny salesman's sample, big enough to hold — maybe — one egg, might be worth $5 or $50. She runs to retrieve one rare specimen from the back room. She holds the skillet with care to display the maker's mark on the underside: Martin Stove & Range Co., Florence, Ala.

"I've got a whole wall of 'em," Williams says. She never cooks in anything else — unless she's frying hash browns. "The only thing you don't want to cook in cast iron is potatoes," she says with authority — they'll taste fine but turn black.

Besides iron and glass, in her store you'll find an elephantine antique pulley, peacock feathers, soul records, bangle bracelets and a shelf of owls. "I've liked stuff since I was a kid," Williams says. "I used to go digging when I was little — maybe 11 years old — in the woods. … Anything I could dig up I loved." Years later, Williams saved a little money and opened the Rose Umbrella, the result of years of digging and donations. She moved the shop a year ago to the old 1930s house where her in-laws once ran a grocery store and sawmill.

Any strangers who stop by are usually seeking a shortcut when I-64 gets choked with traffic, Williams says. Last time, it was a group of 16 from the Church of the Nazarene in Albuquerque, N.M., road-weary and hungry. Williams let them use the bathroom and sold them coffee and slices of pound cake she'd made that morning.

The group bought a few odds and ends, she says. The minister who led them saw a Watchtower magazine lying on the counter and proposed a deal: "He said, 'I'll buy this book if you throw that away.'" But "I didn't want to do that," Williams says. "I read everything."

In the span of an hour one bright Thursday afternoon, the only visitors are one of Williams' sons, a woman who browses the shelves for a few minutes and the county real-estate assessor, a jovial man with blue dragons on his arms. Williams is unperturbed.

"I'll probably never get rich," she says, "unless the Hope diamond comes through here." She waits in the big old house, for that diamond — or that rare 1930s Griswold No. 13 milled-bottom skillet — to show up. Maybe some day.

Eric Quarles, David Hicks and Dean Lewis, too, are waiting. Hicks reclines in a tractor attached to a landscaping truck, which is parked in a grassy clearing behind the Quinton fire station. Quarles, a student at New Kent High School, and David Hicks, a quiet young man with striking blue eyes, stand nearby. A circle of junked cars surrounds them, incongruous with the velvet grass and trees.

Afternoons, they "just come here and hang out," says one. "Ain't nothin' else to do," says another.

The three are volunteer firefighters waiting for this evening's training, when the volunteers will practice rescue techniques, using the Jaws of Life to rip off the stubborn metal roofs and doors of these old cars.

It's nice, actually, to know what you're waiting for will happen precisely at 7 p.m. These three are always waiting, really. Waiting for the call that summons them to a smoking stove, or a house aflame, or the worst of all — a highway wreck.

The little No. 2 Quinton Fire Company, which covers the whole western side of New Kent County, gets 900 calls per year, Lewis says. Twenty percent of those are real-deal emergencies, the rest false alarms or kittens in trees.

I-64 is the worst, they agree. Hicks remembers responding to a call in the summer of 2001, when two 19-year-olds, college bound, crashed into a tree and died. Their parents were following close behind. "That's probably the toughest call I ever had," Hicks says. He falls silent.

The two firetrucks and the ambulance parked in the tall gray shed that serves as the Quinton Fire Station are new, shining red and gold. The air smells of clean engines and oil. A long brass pole, straight out of a storybook, reaches up to the second floor. It seems glamorous to be a firefighter here in western New Kent, where the most excitement you'll find is at the Exxon-Fas Mart-Food Lion cluster west of here. A sign on the only restaurant around reads "Welcome to exciting downtown Quinton and the olde Home Place." The letters are so faded that few probably realize they ought to be excited here.

But the three men say the thrill's not why they fight fires. "Takes up a lot of time, but keeps you out of trouble," Lewis says.

Trouble of one sort, perhaps. Other people's troubles are what they're waiting for. S

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