SHILLINGTON, Pa. - The front door of the white-shingled house at 116 Philadelphia Ave. whips open, and Norita R. King, notary public, fixes me in the crosshairs of her glare.
"I'm not open. What do you want? The hours are 1 to 6! I'm semiretired. I could be here all day, but I don't want to. I've had a rough time for a month. Putting a new roof on. I've had a mess on my hands. Last time I had a local guy do it, and he really messed up. He camouflaged all his bad work. I hate crooks."
She talks at 100 words per minute, with gusts up to 150.
"The dogwood tree?" she says when asked about a local landmark. "Yeah, that's it. Right across the street in the corner. Of course I know John Updike. He used to live right over there. He came back about 10 years ago, talked to me and then wrote an article about it in the New Yorker."
All year the borough of Shillington, just outside Reading, has been celebrating its centennial with scavenger hunts, relay races, chicken barbecues, fireworks and a big parade.
But another milestone has gone unnoticed, the 75th anniversary of the planting of the dogwood at 117 Philadelphia Ave. The tree was placed there by John and Katherine Hoyer in observation of the first birthday of their grandson John Updike, who spent his preadolescent years here with his parents. It survives in the side yard of a handsome brick home.
This year the dogwood effloresced in glorious pink throughout May; now, its leaves are burnished in an Impressionist's October red. The tree is about 40 feet tall with a three-foot trunk circumference at the base. It appears to be in leafy good health.
King, the notary across the street, doesn't know much about its history. "You need to talk to Dr. Hunter."
She seizes a dog-eared telephone directory and begins a page-by-page search, licking her finger with each turn, marinating in her own impatience. "Here it is. Dr. John Hunter. Write down the number."
Hunter, 95 and living in a nearby care facility, purchased the house from the Updike family in 1945 and nurtured the dogwood for the next 44 years.
"The Updikes told us the story of the dogwood tree," he recalled. "When we bought it, of course, we had no idea that John would reach the level of fame that he did. But as this became clearer, we paid more and more attention to the tree. We pruned away the dead branches every year and kept an eye on it."
Updike and the dogwood grew together until he was 13, when the family moved to a nearby farm. Over a distinguished literary career spanning a half-century, Updike has produced 50 books of fiction, short stories, poetry, and assorted nonfiction. He has won two Pulitzer Prizes, the National Book Award, the PEN/Faulkner Award, and many other accolades. Now 76, he lives in Massachusetts.
More than any other contemporary fiction writer, Updike has made his life the subject of his work. In his early novels, The Centaur, Of the Farm and Poorhouse Fair, as well as in dozens of short stories, Updike made himself, through different voices and physiognomies, his chief character. And he has made his readers intimately familiar with his hometown - Shillington, which he calls Olinger in his fiction - and its people.
When his mother died in October 1989, at the family farm in nearby Plowville, Updike, an only child, returned to handle the details of her funeral and estate.
In the Yellow Pages, he noticed a listing for Norita King, a notary at 116 Philadelphia Ave. Two years later, the New Yorker published a short story by Updike, "The Other Side of the Street," in which a man returns to his hometown after his mother's death, seeks a notary to transfer the title of her car, and sees a listing for Georgene R. Muller across the street from his childhood home. Updike portrays the fictional notary as talkative.
Today, Norita King is barefoot and in a hurry: "I've got to get to the nursing home. I help a lot of old people and don't charge 'em. They want heavy thunderstorms this afternoon. I'm not in this for the money. I was in health care, worked for a doctor. He had a heart attack but he's still living. I used to travel a lot but I got Legionnaire's disease on a cruise ship in the Panama Canal, so I'm not traveling anymore."
Her porch office is crowded with a space heater, electric typewriter and fax machine. Over the typewriter is a framed photograph of her and Updike, both wearing 300-watt smiles, taken in 1989. "He told me he was always fascinated by the houses across the street from his house," she says.
Her eyes go wide with the memory. "He said there was a swing right next door that he used to play on when he was a little boy. It was just like he wrote in the story."
Updike commemorated the planting in a long autobiographical essay, "The Dogwood Tree," published in 1963. It begins, erroneously, with this sentence: "When I was born, my parents and my mother's parents planted a dogwood tree in the side yard of the large white house in which we lived throughout my boyhood." When Updike's mother read the essay, she informed her son that the occasion had been his first birthday.
Today the former Updike home is owned by the Niemczyk Hoffman Group, an advertising agency. Tracy Hoffman, one of the firm's principals, tugs at a low, mossy branch and says that the dogwood attracts little attention. "We get an occasional literary type who will drop in, and once in a while a tour bus will stop across the street for five minutes. We don't do anything special for the dogwood. It just keeps coming back - year in, year out."
There are still traces of Updike's fiction around Shillington. Just a few hundred yards east on Philadelphia Avenue is a crumbling sandstone wall that is a remnant of the huge wall that surrounded the Berks County Poorhouse, which served as the model for Updike's The Poorhouse Fair.
Updike wrote: "The wall, its height slightly waving, like a box hedge, enclosed four and a fourth acres. There was a hell of a big yellow house back from the wall. Old people were crawling around like bugs on a lawn."
Today, there are garden homes and suburban apartments behind the wall.
Just behind the backyard of the former Updike home is the old Shillington High School, which is now part of an expanded building that is a middle school and part of the sprawling campus of the Governor Mifflin School District. Wesley Updike, the author's father, taught here, and John Updike nurtured his genius here. "The smells of tablet paper and wet shoes and varnish and face powder pierced him with a vivid sense of possession," Updike wrote in The Centaur.
An old building on Lancaster Avenue, Shillington's main drag, is the former home of Stephen's Luncheonette, the real-life high school hangout described in The Centaur. "From the rear a chorus of cheers rhythmically rose as the pinball machine, gonging in protest, gave up one free game after another."
But the dogwood tree is the most poignant reminder of an American literary giant. James Sellmer, Pennsylvania State University horticulturalist, says any 75-year-old dogwood (Cornus florida) is an inherently hardy specimen, surviving a widespread blight that has wiped out many of its species in Pennsylvania. Some dogwoods live to be 125.