American Dogwood, ’96

1

September 14, 2012 by The Citron Review

by Joseph Alan Hasinger
 

In Roanoke, Virginia, on my street and throughout the neighborhoods that branch from it, dogwood trees are flowering in conspicuous puffs of white and shades of red. They seem to have bloomed overnight, and all together, as if they’d held hands and planned it—their sudden and courageous leap into spring. These are American Flowering Dogwoods, Cornus florida; crooked and small trees—wider than they are tall—that each year add drifts of cotton-like contrast to the pines who stand over them.

The scent of the dogwood’s flower is not unlike the fragrance of a woman. Not alike in chemistry—not exactly—but in enchantment, in that clichéd way in which either seems to unwittingly perform incantations of longing over me.

Even my dog has fallen under their spell. Often we go walking together through these streets, these suburban groves of dogwoods, and before I’ve caught the faintest hint of blossom in the air she is stumbling forward with her snout pointed to the sky, her eyes closed tight. She is savoring the smell of them. She trusts the scent, moves blindly, almost unwillingly toward its source.

* * *

I was raised in North Carolina, and though the dogwood is in fact the state’s official flower—as it is Virginia’s—the neighborhood in which I grew up was not especially blessed with the trees. They grew and bloomed in abundance all over town, were even celebrated each April in Fayetteville’s annual Dogwood Festival—music, arts and crafts, a parade—but on my street there stood only one dogwood tree, and it stood on our front lawn. This was a matter of substantial pride for my father, who took upon himself with great earnestness the responsibility of the tree’s upkeep and health. Even if the grass around it lay dead in brown patches, the dogwood would be pruned and its roots weeded. Once, when my father caught a neighborhood boy carving his initials into its trunk, the boy was handed down the sentence of lifelong banishment from our yard. He must’ve understood the unspoken seriousness of the situation—he never returned.

The dogwood was an issue of state pride, my father had once explained to me, and also of pride in one’s religion. The Christian legend of the dogwood tree claims that it is from its wood that the cross on which Christ hung was constructed. That the dogwood tree was once much larger—the tallest and strongest tree to grow in Jerusalem—and that after the crucifixion Christ changed the tree to its shorter, twisted state, so that it might never again be used in the making of crosses.

A skeptic from an early age, I shared no belief in the dogwood’s legend, but I loved and was proud of our tree, if only for its beauty and for the perfume it sent wafting through my bedroom windows in the springtime. And I was happy to see my father care for it as much as he did. In those days he spent so much of his life seemingly numbed, whether from the long, back-breaking shifts he worked at the plant, or from the whiskey he drank when he came home. It was nice to see him have the kind of passion he had for that dogwood.

I could not help but pity him, then, in September of ’96, as he stood at our front door watching the outer bands of Hurricane Fran, who’d just made landfall along the Cape Fear basin, push down without restraint on our town. We were far enough inland that we’d never—at least not in my sixteen years—felt any ill effect of the big storms that periodically battered the coast. But here were the long cords of rain moving perfectly, strangely sideways past the clear plastic of the storm door; here was Dad’s poor dogwood, uprooted by a heavy gust of wind and laid across the driveway just feet behind our station wagon.

My mother inched up behind him, looked past his shoulder. “At least it missed the Dodge,” she said.

“Fuck the Dodge,” Dad said, and he closed the door.

* * *

Today the management of the property I live on seems to have declared war on trees. Early this morning the buzz of their saws began; it is near dusk now and the saws have hardly stopped for breath. The land surrounding the complex has been stripped practically bare, the pines and birch dismembered and hauled away on flatbeds. The trunks allowed their stay stand as sad amputees and the once-thick woods that spared my condo from a view of the train tracks and the expressway beyond is all but cleared away.

I tell myself: They must have their reasons. But truthfully, I can’t understand it.

Just beyond the tree-line and down the hill toward the tracks stand a pair of American Dogwoods, in full bloom and wonderfully out of place among the scarred evergreens. I can see them from my living room. And with the windows raised and this breeze picking up, I can just catch their aroma in the air. Perhaps beyond the property line, they seem to have been spared; the workers are packing up their saws.

Still, I’m thinking of my father, of the tree and the storm of ’96. Of the day after, when Fran had weakened and moved along and left us all in a sort of wake—that odd serenity of a passed storm, of a threat that had, for the most part, stepped over us.

I am thinking of the glassed, drink-wild eyes of my father, and of the meticulous way in which he unpacked his own saw and set to removing the dogwood, chunk by chunk. The slow and solemn procession to the curb. The gray sky opening into light. The subtle movement of a town stirring back to life.

 

Joseph Alan Hasinger holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Hollins University. His work has previously appeared in Jersey Devil Press, Stanley the Whale, and The Citron Review. Joseph lives in Charleston, SC, where he works as a technical writer/editor and English instructor. He’s currently at work on a collection of short stories entitled Everybody Happy All the Time.

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