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The Southwest Diner. The story that shook me from my creative slump

*About a year ago, I was in a bit of an influx in my life. I had just passed the quarter-century mark on my timeline, I had just switched jobs and was questioning just about everything. So I did what any girl would do. I jumped on a plan to see one of my best gal pals. It was a great long weekend. We talked and shopped and caught a baseball game. And it all calmed me down. It inspired me that life is big and me worrying about what is coming next is silly and unproductive. On the flight home, I started writing a little short story inspired by a place we had gone. I hadn’t done anything creative in months and this just flowed. It was cathartic. Whether it’s any good? I’ll leave that up to you.*

The Southwest Diner

I couldn’t see his face. It was part of his charm. It was like a great mystery, like a new game that everyone else had been playing for ages and I had only just discovered.

It was October the 20th and the leaves were just starting to change color in St. Louis. The air was full of autumn crispness, but the sun was gleaming down. Its warm rays free from the clouds that had been hanging over the city for the past three days.

I almost sat outside. Soon the cold and miserable Missouri winter would be setting in, and the steel table and chairs and striped umbrellas would be put into storage, leaving the outdoor patio dormant until the beginning signs of spring. A small table was open. It was in direct sunlight with a perfect view of Southwest Avenue, perfect for people watching. I almost sat there and then this story would be over. My hand reached for the back of the chair, about to pull it from its home underneath the table. The chair was cold, making my body involuntarily shiver. My hand lingered on the cold steel as I contemplated my options. Enjoy the last few morsels of fall or enjoy my meal nestled at a table in a cozy corner of the busy diner?

The bell attached to the top of the door rings, merrily announcing my arrival to the customers and waitstaff at the Southwest Diner. The booth I usually occupy is filled with a couple of kids, maybe in their early 20s. And although I am not much older, they seem young to me. They laugh and build pyramids with the vials of creamer placed at the table. I smile as I pass by, thinking about the days when eating lunch with a couple of friends was all there was. But that was then and this is not.

I survey my surroundings. The place is full but I’ve seen it busier. Most of the best seats and tables are full of families or young couples enjoying a lazy Sunday. I spy an empty stool, still spinning, recently vacated by it’s previous owner. It is at the edge of the counter, facing away from the natural light streaming in from the panel of glass in the front window. It’s not ideal but it will have to do. I slide between two tables carefully avoiding knocking over a saucer of salsa sitting precariously on one edge. I slip my cardigan off my shoulders. I won’t need it now. I can already feel the heat emitting from the grill cooking eggs, peppers and something that smells like it would be too spicy for my taste buds. I hang it on a peg sticking out of the wall. I’m cautious to hang my purse. It feels a little too heavy for the hook. I brought the big book today thinking I would be wasting the day outside enjoying the fall air and losing myself in a story that was probably written for an audience of tweens. But now as I settle in, sitting elbow to elbow with strangers, it doesn’t feel like the right setting. The book stays in the bag, and I find a piece of tiled floor out of the way to stash it for the time being.

I take a look around. Most people call this place a dive, and they would be right. That was my initial assessment the first time I saw the crumbling brick building. Like most places on this side of town, it was something else about 12 times over before it became what it is now. It was actually a mistake the first time I wandered in. I had only been in St. Louis about three weeks when I took too many left turns and found myself not at the grocery store but here. That was eight months ago.

The small room is shaped like a rectangle with old mismatched wooden tables wedged wherever they will fit. The walls are white but I don’t think many people are focused on the color. A random assortment of drawings and paintings of the American Southwest cover almost every square inch of wall. Maps of New Mexico are hung beside Aztec art. It is verging on sensory overload, but in here, it all fits. My favorite piece is placed over a small table in the corner. It is a photograph of a weather worn white wooden school house, almost ready to crumble. But still it stands, defiant under the brilliant blue prairie sky as a few wispy clouds float overhead. I stare at the picture now, losing myself in a faraway distant memory. The more I focus, the more I can almost make the clouds move, make the wind blow the tall prairie grass. But a ding of a bell announcing the arrival of a hot plate of pancakes brings me back to where I am. I shift my attention to the sound that tore me from my trance. It came from the kitchen. I look past the waitress balancing a tray filled with glasses brimming with orange juice and my gaze falls on him.

*Part two to follow tomorrow.

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