Fletcher Maine, apparently it’s the breakfast pastry capital of the world during the holidays. I found out, very soon after arriving that, one of the primary events of December there, was The Christmas Waffle. They’re not food color green or red dye number 9.
They’re something much more special. I didn’t see it at first, and it took awhile. Yet I did eventually see it, and I discovered a few things I desperately needed in the process. I admit I wasn’t feeling too great when I rolled into town.
My name is Kevin Paine, and I’m a food blogger. I was traveling along the coast, writing about holiday foods. Fletcher Maine wasn’t on my list. I had never heard of it, it was just an attempt at fixing a problem.
The last place I had stopped was a mistake. I had heard a lot about Cannon Diner’s Clam Soufflé, but I hadn’t heard enough. For example, that it tasted like tar, sand, and any other inedible thing you could think of. The only person fond of Canon’s soufflé was Cannon, who had hyped it artificially online.
My stomach was in no mood to continue on to the next location. I stopped at the first exit that advertised a bed and breakfast, The Creek Valley Inn. I parked the car, grabbed one of my bags, and headed inside. I hadn’t expected much, but was pleasantly surprised.
“Welcome to The Creek Valley Inn, my name is Daphne Wilkins. What type of room would you like?” She seemed like a nice lady in her sixties. Silver hair, blue eyes, and a kind smile. Nice, but ordinary, that’s not a slam, I was glad to see ordinary, it had been awhile.
“Yes ma’am, I’m needing a room with a queen or king if available. I’m afraid I don’t have reservations. I wasn’t intending to stop here, but I’m not feeling well, and was hoping for anything that’s available. My name is Kevin Paine.”
She went beyond my assessment, she couldn’t have been more welcoming. Ms Wilkins charged me very little, ushered me into a wonderful room with a king size bed, recliner, desk, and nice chair. In two minutes she had gotten my keys, and sent her nephew Stan out to get my other luggage.
He brought my bags, and keys while she stepped out. Before I knew, she was back with something else. “I’m not a big chicken soup fan Kevin, but I have found peppermint tea to help an upset stomach. I’ll set it here, and we’ll get out so you can rest. If you feel up for breakfast tomorrow, we serve from 7 to 9, good night.”
I was so tired, I didn’t plan on drinking the tea. I grabbed a shower to try and feel well enough to sleep. By the time I had my pajamas on, I was feeling a little better. The tea was still hot, and I ended up drinking not just the cup, but the small teapot they had brought. I passed out watching an old Christmas movie on the local channel.
The next morning, I woke up feeling better, and was actually hungry. I joined everyone for breakfast, and it was wonderful. Ms Wilkins, her nephew Stan, Oscar their chef, and the other couple staying, the Huttons were pleasant company.
I relished talking to everyone, almost as much as I enjoyed the food. I was starting to be intrigued by this little town off an emergency exit. I was curious enough to go exploring what it had to offer.
No one knew me there, which was refreshing. I was thankful, tired of who I was following me everywhere I went. For the first time in a year, I could relax. It seemed to good to be true, and I was afraid it wouldn’t last.
By the afternoon, it was still holding, so I came back to the room for something that hadn’t seemed possible a day before, a nap. I had intended to sleep an hour, and woke up in time for dinner. I hurriedly straightened up, and joined everyone for dinner.
It was even more wonderful than breakfast.
It wasn’t that one dish stood out, everything was great. So was the company, including the new addition, the chef’s daughter Molly. She apparently had just had a not so great day at work, and was famished. Her Dad was trying to encourage her over the soup.
“You’re smarter than all of the bunch Molly. You ought to leave that startup and start your own business. You could be the next big name in technology if you set your mind to it.” She just laughed.
Apparently she saw me listening. “Dad thinks I’m a genius or something, parental love. I’m just a computer programmer for a small startup, brilliant guys, but hard to deal with. Sometimes geniuses can be challenging.”
I smiled back. “I’m afraid I wouldn’t know. The smartest person I know fired me after the first day. I try to avoid brilliance if at all possible.” She gave me a funny look, but quickly smiled to cover. That’s when I started to feel queasy again, only this time it wasn’t the food.
I made an excuse, and skipped desert, heading back to my room. Why had I tried to be funny? I’m not funny as a rule, and trying always gets me into trouble. I was hoping I hadn’t said too much, but decided to keep a low profile for a day or two while I got my bearings.
I was reliving the last few months in my mind, starting to creep back into misery territory when there was a knock on the door. It was Molly. She just stood there, and looked at me for a couple of minutes. Then she said, her voice a little shaky, “Why are you here, and when are you leaving?”
I muttered I didn’t know when, and that I hadn’t planned on coming. “I’m leaving in a couple of days. I hadn’t planned on coming here. All I want is a couple of days of normal, then I’ll be out of everyone’s hair.”
Molly looked at me as if I had personally attacked her. I was tempted to point out that I had never seen her before the last few hours. Instead I did something I didn’t expect, I cried, and tried to shut the door before she saw the tears.
Her foot stopped me. “You don’t get to cry. Why are you crying? I’m the one… the one who read some story on the internet and assumed I knew everything. I’m sorry, I…” Then she started crying, we were both a mess.
She choked out, “Coffee, Zeke’s Pizza, let’s go.” I started not to follow. When she said, “Now!”, I followed.
We both stopped crying in the car. When we sat down for coffee and pizza she started talking. “I don’t know what I want. I want to be a success, but I don’t want to swim the English Channel or fly to Mars. I don’t know what that means any more, you know? What do you want?”
“I, I don’t I understand all of that, but I do know what not knowing feels like. I wanted to change my town. I trusted the wrong person, and he raked me over the coals to get what he wanted.”
She looked at me. “So what really happened? Tell me your story.”
“I’m a food blogger who wanted to become a chef. I started this online business to put myself through culinary school. I had been a finance guy, and I hated it. An old co-worker decided my hard work was the perfect way to make himself rich, only he didn’t tell me that part.”
“Eric told me that we would put on this culinary conference for the region, get backers, etc. He said it would build the community, help establish my reputation locally for backers to fund a restaurant venture, and we’d be set. Then on the first day, he ran off with the money.”
“The police investigated and cleared me, but public opinion doesn’t believe me. I’m the guy who plummeted the town into debt, and left them with nothing. So now I keep moving, when people find out, no one wants me in their town.”
“Wow! When did you figure it out? What did you say?”
“Thankfully I happened to be with the only witness that salvaged me from going to prison. I was cooking dinner for the Mayor and his family, as a preview of some food for the event, when my partner flew out.”
“I didn’t have any idea, I actually believed him. I feel like an idiot.”
She gave me a kind look. “People can be very convincing. That’s the part I haven’t told my Dad. My boss is slick, when I first started he talked me into signing an exclusive contract. It’s not that I want to stay, but that I can’t go anywhere else and do the same thing for a year.”
“Could you do something else? I mean an exclusive contract usually is for a time period, it can’t be indefinite. Could you stomach doing something you don’t like for a year, to get to do what you want the rest of your life?”
It had been an honest question, but I didn’t expect it to have the impact it had. She suddenly stopped, as if she were stunned. I thought I had offended her, then she broke into a big smile. She wasn’t looking at me, she was staring in front of her, as if guiding a hamster through a maze.
It only lasted for a couple of minutes, then she looked at me. “I know what to do. It’s so simple. Get your coat, your coming with me.”
I grabbed my coat, we paid our bill, and I followed her out. Funny, I didn’t ask where we were going. I didn’t ask what she was getting ready to do. Somehow I just knew it was what we were supposed to do, so I followed, also I didn’t know what else to do.
Molly headed straight for the local library. She had me set. Down at the computer and pull up all of the articles on the fiasco I had been through. “I know it’s going to be painful, but if you’ll let me I think I can help both of us.” I nodded, and kept researching.
About an hour later she said we had enough, and that we were going to meet her Dad. Soon we were all sitting at the Inn, Molly, her Dad Oscar, Daphne Wilkins, Stan, and even the Hutton’s. “First things first, Dad, I need your help, so does Kevin, and here is why.”
She told her story first, and then motioned for me to go through mine. I was embarrassed, but somehow I trusted Molly. I went through it all, bracing myself for no one to believe me again. That didn’t happen.
If they believed Molly, they believed me. She took over after each of them gave me a smile of reassurance. “Okay, here is why I had him go through all of that. I had a problem, and I couldn’t see a way out, even though it was right in front of me. He helped me find an answer by asking a question.”
“I think I can help him the same way. I also think we can help with a bigger problem with the town, but I need everyone’s help. I’m talking about the Grant Factory, and Carl Wigg.”
It was at this point I was totally confused, and the others looked like they’d joined me. Stan spoke first. “Molly, I don’t know that you can do anything about Carl. Can’t we just let that alone?”
Before Molly could speak, his Aunt did. “Stan, your Uncle Jeff wanted to fix this. He almost lost the inn trying. I owe it to him to try myself. You don’t have to help, but your Uncle would be so proud of you if you did.”
Stan smiled. “The one two punch, your smile and Uncle Jeff, you know I can’t say no to that. Let’s take the battle to him. You better fill Kevin in first though, he’s lost again.”
The next few words, I thought I had misheard at the time. Ollie looked at me and said, “It’s about the Christmas Waffle. You didn’t mishear me, I said the Christmas Waffle. It’s a Fletcher thing.”
Molly stepped in. “Every year in December we have the Waffle Festival. It’s a few days of fun, games, community, and the Waffle Battle. No we don’t throw waffles at each other. It’s about the best Waffle related dish, the winner gets a trophy, bragging rights, and a stay at the inn. The Hutton’s won it last year.”
Henry Hutton beamed. “Waffle Beef Wellington. Ground waffles to make a crust, deep fried, cut thin, fancy name, maple sauce. I told Nan we couldn’t lose. We decided to pick this week to celebrate before the festival got under way. As the winner of last year, I get to make a speech and give out the trophy.”
I looked at Molly, expecting to hear something about a financial crisis over the town or something. “Every season we hold it at the old Grant Factory, it’s been closed for twenty years. We’ve got a one hundred year lease so he can’t throw us out, that’s not the problem.”
I thought Daphne was interrupting, until I realized, this next part was her story. “Stan’s brother is Carl. There’s no villain in this story, well not exactly, unless the victim and the villain are the same person. This is about trying to help Carl.”
“Everybody is going to be fine, the town’s not in trouble. You and Molly will get through all of this. Stan, if Carl folds, will get everything, but he doesn’t care about the money. He’s fed up with his twin brother beating himself up, and doesn’t want to try. If somebody doesn’t help Carl though, he’s gone.”
I listened intently from that moment on. Molly, and everyone came up with this elaborate scheme to build the guy up. They told me how he had failed at every business he had tried. Struggled with some things he shouldn’t be messing with, and was basically a step away from explosion. I knew what I would do.
After everyone went home, I found Daphne, and set her down. I told her what I had in mind. She listened quietly, and though she disagreed, was desperate.
“You know that Molly will think you are crazy, and you may lose her. Don’t say you don’t have her, you both have each other, neither of you have admitted it yet. There’s no guarantee this will work, and it could push him over the edge.”
“I don’t think so. I think, I think I know what’s at the core of his problem. I think that, well, I think I can help him. If not, we will try the big grab you all have planned. Please let me try?”
She agreed, on one condition. “Before we do this, you have to tell Molly first. You’re not going to get in your car and drive off to misery and leave me to pick up the pieces. That girl needs to be trusted, and needs to be able to trust again.”
Reluctantly I agreed, and Daphne said we’d talk at breakfast. So I went to bed, not that I could sleep. Tossing and turning, second guessing myself until the alarm went off.
We all had a big breakfast, waffles. I didn’t expect to eat, but the food was so good. Plus, I think I told myself the more I ate, the longer I had until time to talk, but eventually we finished breakfast.
Daphne spoke first. “Molly, Kevin has convinced me that the plan we made for Carl last night won’t work. He feels it won’t work because, well, we made a plan for Carl. He thinks, he thinks that someone has to force Carl to make a plan for himself. Kevin thinks he can cause him to do that.”
Stan was angry. “Don’t you think I’ve tried that? Don’t you think everyone hear has tried that? What makes you think that you, a stranger who’s never met him, can fix him when we couldn’t?”
This was the part I was dreading. “Because none of us, including me can fix him. He can’t fix himself, I’m sure he’s tried. He needs help, and he needs to admit to himself that he needs help. I know, because I went through it already. I was sixteen …”
I told my story about the battles I faced, the addictions and struggles, and how at twenty things changed. I told them how it changed, and why. When I was done, Molly hugged me. Stan volunteered to drive me. Everyone wanted to go, but I said no.
We didn’t talk much the first mile or two. Then Stan’s love for his brother overcame his anger. “He’s not a bad guy. When Uncle Jeff got sick, that started shaking him. Delores, his girlfriend, she dumped him. That started everything, and it just continues to get worse. I’m scared, I don’t mind telling you.”
We drove up to the house, and Stan went in alone at first. I couldn’t make out the shouting, but before long, he came to the door and motioned for me to come in. Carl looked like his identical twin, except somehow appeared much older, and even thinner than skinny Stan.
“Another fixer. What makes you think you can fix me? Maybe I like the way I am, did you ever think of that?”
I took a picture out of my wallet and held it up to him. “I did, but I rejected it, the clincher was what you just said, or didn’t say. In all of that, you never disagreed with the fact that you are broken. We all are in some way, and you my friend, are less broken than I was.”
Stan left like I had asked in the van. Carl and I sat there for hours. He told me his story, it was very private, and painful. Including how his Uncle almost lost the Inn paying for his rehab when his parents refused to kick in for a third time. I told him mine, also very private, also very painful. Finally, he asked me what he should do.
“First, let me tell you what changed for me. You see, it’s funny all this talk about waffles. I had ‘waffled’ back and forth trying to change, and failing. It took me two years to actually make everything stick, and at twenty it did.”
He looked at me. “What stuck? How did you fix what was broken? How do you repair lives that aren’t there. Mistakes that you can’t undue. If a time machine was a thing maybe, but how do you fix yesterday?”
I said a prayer before I spoke. “I was the one that was stuck. Desperation, that was what got my attention. I realized in a very real way that, if I didn’t fix today, and let go of yesterday, there would be no tomorrow. I was broken, and I couldn’t fix myself.”
“There are no time machines, but that’s by design, yet there is a way to get better. You assumed that I fixed me, or friends and family did, the truth is that wasn’t what happened. I found myself on Christmas night behind a wheel I shouldn’t be behind.”
“I hit a car that I thought I wasn’t supposed to hit. Truth be told, that wreck is what started the change. The guy I hit was bleeding, his leg had been smashed up. I was scared but I wanted to call the police. He said no, and insisted I take him to the hospital instead.”
“Scared out of my mind I agreed. I was beginning to think he was running from the law until the nurse recognized him. He was a local Pastor, Jeff Combs. I stayed with him until they bandaged his leg, and told him to go home. I took him home, on the way we talked.”
“Like you are now, I was angry. Everything he said I verbally rejected, except that I did listen. He told me about his own battles, and how his faith helped to overcome them. Pastor Combs didn’t quote a lot of Scripture, or try and blow my mind with big terms, instead he said what I’m about to say to you.”
“This is what he said that changed my life. ‘You can sit there until you destroy yourself. Until everyone hates you as much as you despise yourself. Or you can ask yourself this, why did Christ care enough to be born?”
“If what He said is true, then why did He waste His time loving you and I? The Bible admits none of us are worth it. That we’re all flawed failures since Genesis, so why did He try? Because He knew that He had The Power to do what neither you nor I can do, and that’s fix what is broken inside us.”
“I decided that if God did what my Mother had sang about, what my Father had believed, and I knew them, then I had to make a choice. I could either step out of this life to meet Him like I was, or I could ask for His help now. I chose to ask for help while it was still available.”
I left the picture of what I had looked like at my worst laying on the seat, and started to walk away. Carl stopped me, and we prayed. Then we called Stan, and went to the hospital. He had a long journey ahead, but I knew he would make it this time.
Molly met me at the hospital. Daphne started to thank me and I stopped her. “I didn’t do anything but tell him what someone had shared with me. He’s probably heard it all before, but he never heard it from someone who had been more messed up than he was.”
I was uncomfortable with all the attention, and made an excuse to get coffee. Molly came with me. When we sat down, she asked me how I did it. “I don’t mean what happened today. I mean, you got your life back at twenty, then you go through this big crisis in your life. How did you keep from going back, or falling apart?”
“That’s easy. I’m not the same guy I was. That doesn’t mean I wasn’t tempted. We’re all flesh, but being a Christian truly means two things. One, He changes you, two He doesn’t leave you. When I get weak, I ask for His help. I needed a lot of it lately, and He’s never failed me.”
We had our first date that night, hospital food, then went to see Carl for a few minutes. Over the next year, I stayed for the festival, and ended up working for the Inn in marketing. Stan and I launched a full restaurant at the Inn. Molly couldn’t do start up work, but she could manage a restaurant.
Carl got better, and eventually got back together with Doris. He’s stable, he and Stan converted the factory into a new business they had always talked about. Daphne and Ollie ended up getting married, and so did Molly and I.
There’s a Christmas song about wassling, and an old joke about it being called waffling, and I thought of it through this whole thing. In this life, you do a lot of waffling, or going back and forth, until you realize that you don’t have too.
The promise of The Baby in the manger isn’t about a day’s celebration, but a changed life for us all. A lot of people start out in January to change their lives, others wait til it’s too late. I chose to start in December. When I felt like giving up, and everyone has moments like that, I remembered that He never did.
From Bethlehem to Calvary, Christ continued out of love for a people who had no right to ask, so He acted first, without us asking. Now that He has given us a way to ask for help and to receive a new life, what right do I have to turn it down?