The following is an excerpt taken from the novel, Hunger of the Pine by Teal Swan. Hunger of the Pine is about one young woman’s struggle with homelessness, and her fight to find a life she can love.
The valleys and plains they passed along Highway 40 though dry, gave more of a lonely impression of open ocean than of land. The sun seemed to be fixed on life, sucking the water from everything. The main streets of the old western towns were littered now with impermanent chain stores. Absent of a building code, it looked as if the businesses that came there had all snagged themselves on the destitution, unprepared for the kind of customers who leave their Christmas lights on all year long. Since the beginning people had been coming to the West, mistaking the impression of endlessness for opportunity.
In her naivety, Aria had expected to see cowboys herding cattle on the plains, but the people who would be driving those cattle, growing gardens or canning their own food seemed to have been swallowed up by the wave of modern society and left behind by it. Now the cowboy, who once conquered the Native American, found himself conquered, his life made obsolete. To Aria’s dismay, they lived in trailer parks or houses that were falling apart on the outskirts of what could hardly be called cities, living on cigarettes and chew and easy-access television. Instead of working the land, they worked on oil rigs or metal shops or corporate dairy farms because it was all they could afford to do.
The West was conquered barely over a hundred years ago and still, Aria could see it was already full of a hard-won, gunshot, broken history and the kind of wounds that never heal. But beyond the hot crackle of the grasshoppers, she found there to be a slow, heartbreaking beauty; a vastness that could never be possessed.
They traversed an unpeopled wilderness where the night sky was so dark, the stars were a bright, white dust instead of interspersed lights, not just those which could outshine the nebulous glow of the city. There were sunsets and wildflowers. Animals outside cages, people outside metal and glass. A violent dance of nature, where life itself was distilled to its raw, original self.
The bus had driven through the night. Aria was staring at a man in an army uniform sitting three rows up from her. She caught herself wondering about his life, creating possible scenarios about where he was going and why. Scanning the rest of the occupants of the bus, she felt out of place amidst the rows and rows of blacks and Mexicans in front of her. Not that the bus felt like a safe place to be in the first place, but when the racial coin was flipped, she always felt as if one wrong move would bring centuries’ worth of resentment for what her forefathers had done crashing down on her head. She felt outnumbered. Even so, Aria loved the way that so many people with so many different stories, most of whom would never cross paths in a lifetime, could all end up as if by fate in one place and on a temporary odyssey together.
Aria felt the bus slow and diverge from the highway when it pulled in for a morning meal stop on the day they were due to arrive in LA. It was one of 19 stops they made along the way. The turbulence it created woke up most of the passengers, including Taylor, who had been sleeping for nearly the entire two-day ride. His eyes opened, as if he were coming out of a daze. He sat straight up and looked around with a childlike movement that said “are we there yet?”.
They had pulled over at a gas station that was conjoined to a Burger King. The driver announced that they would have 30 minutes before they were expected to be back on the bus. Promising Taylor to meet him back on the bus when she was done in the bathroom, Aria rounded the corner into one of the aisles, hoping to be hidden from view by the conflux of passengers perusing the shelves. She picked up items, assessing them one by one, hoping to appear normal, like every other customer. When she was sure that the people manning the counter were sufficiently overwhelmed with customer purchases and she was out of view of all of the security cameras in the room, she disguised her action as best as she could and picked up two honey-flavored granola bars, concealing them in her jacket pocket.
She felt disgusting. Disgusting for stealing and disgusting because she had not found a way to shower in too many days to count. At first she wandered into the bathroom to see if there was any way to wash herself there, but the constant influx of passengers made her decide against it. She stood in the hallway where the bathrooms were located, trying the few different doors that were there in the short spaces of solitude between customers entering the bathrooms. The first door turned up nothing but a storeroom full of boxes of unopened products. But the second turned out to be a utility closet. In the brief moment it took to glance inside, she saw that there was a sink there. Aria closed the door to pretend again that she was up to nothing long enough for a man who was headed for the bathroom to disappear inside. Then she opened the door again, snuck inside and locked the door behind her.
The cement floor was stained brown from years of heavy use. All around her, in some form of organized chaos, were cleaning products and tools, a collection of brooms, two ladders, a rolled-up hose and empty buckets thrown on top of one another. The yellow handle of a mop projected from the deep porcelain washbasin affixed to the wall. Rust stains had tainted its original color. Aria had collected three empty water bottles in her time since running away from the Johnsons. She had been using them for everything from gathering water in drinking fountains to filling them with hot tap water to keep her warm at night, to placing them on the ledges of windowsills to catch the light in a way that comforted her. She found it almost farcical that something she’d never thought twice about would be one of the things she now treasured the most.
Looking down to confirm that there was a drain in the center of the floor, she pulled the bottles from her backpack and began to fill each with water from the faucet. Still afraid to be discovered, she rushed to strip naked and place her clothes up on a high shelf, out of reach of any potential water spray. The water, not intended for the human skin, was freezing. As fast as she could, refilling the bottles again and again, she soaked herself with it. Tiny goosebumps began to rise up to meet the water.
Aria briefly looked for soap with which to clean herself, but only discovered a jug of solvent cleaner, intended for cleaning floors. She considered whether or not it would be dangerous for her skin, but decided to take the risk. She soaped herself vigorously, including the length of her hair, which she stuck under the faucet of the sink. She hoped that the force of the water would do a better job of washing the suds out than the trickle from the water bottles would.
When she was done, she patted herself off as fast as she could with sheets of paper towels she found on a roll sitting on the shelf beside her and squeezed the water from the ends of her hair with them. After pulling her clothes and shoes back on, she put the damp bottles back into her backpack. Aria stood there, holding on to the straps of her backpack and listening to what was happening on the other side of the door for a time, before deciding to exit. When she did, no one noticed. Aria didn’t know whether that was a relief or whether she wanted them to notice. On the one hand, she did not want to get in trouble. She hadn’t wanted them to catch her there. On the other hand, the ease with which she was going unnoticed made her nervous. She was beginning to feel invisible, as if she were a ghost. She was beginning to slip through the cracks in between people’s caring.