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ihop-five

Linda Fray sat restlessly through her friends’ discussion of the coming Apocalypse until she could stand it no longer. She had just spent $350 on a pair of cowboy boots and, dammit, she wanted to show them off.

“What do y’all think?” she said, kicking a leg out from under the table and revealing a pointy toe of turquoise leather. “Pretty nice, huh?”

Her four friends leaned over their breakfast platters for a closer look. Rob Ratzenberg was the first to comment, as was often the case.

“They’re a little on the flashy side for my taste. You aren’t gonna ride in them, are you?”

“Of course she’s not riding in them,” Gracie Picket said as she stirred Sweet ‘N Low into her coffee. “Those are dancing boots, not horse boots.”

Calwood Bachelor and Frank Bastin sipped their coffees and smiled dimly, a reaction Linda expected from two men who hadn’t changed their wardrobes since the Reagan Administration.

“I bought them off Bootopia.com,” she said, hitching her jeans leg to show a little more leather. “They were pricey, but a girl’s gotta treat herself every now and again.”

“Well, they are lovely,” Gracie said. “And you should treat yourself every chance you get. God knows what the months ahead have in store for us.”

“That’s right, sister,” said Calwood said. “A hard rain’s a-gonna fall.”

The others nodded grimly, like soldiers about to parachute into battle.

For years, they had met once a week—every week—for breakfast. Sometimes the meeting place was at Waffle House or Cracker Barrel, but mostly it was IHOP—the International House of Pancakes, as Gracie steadfastly called it. The coffee was better there, they all agreed and, well, so were the pancakes.

Originally, it was just three of them—Gracie, Rob and Cal. They became acquainted through an adult Sunday school class Cal taught for many years at the First Baptist Church of LeFarge. It was a popular class, regularly drawing 20 or more churchgoers after the early-morning worship service. Cal had a good grasp of the Bible, and, as a former Navy SEAL who served in Vietnam, he had credibility as a leader of his peers. He was skilled at bringing Scripture to life through personal anecdotes, humorous parables, and current events.

Some of his content was a little too current, apparently, as the pastoral staff started getting complaints from church members that Cal’s lessons had taken a decidedly political tone. Cal eventually lost his class, and left First Baptist a few weeks later with a defiant gesture that members of the congregation still sometimes talked about. A long-time usher, Cal raised his brass collection plate over his head during one Sunday morning service, and slammed it down on the church’s carpeted aisle, sending spare change and little paper envelopes flying everywhere. He strode out of the sanctuary, growling something about Jesus casting out all the moneychangers.

Gracie Picket, a former school teacher, and Rob Ratzenberg, a retired Yankee from New Jersey, left the church, too, albeit under calmer circumstances. That’s when the breakfast meetings began. At first the three of them brought their Bibles to the IHOP, but studying the events of two thousand years ago soon gave way to impassioned talks about more immediate, juicier topics. Soon, the leather-bound Bibles went back to gathering dust on bedside tables in their homes.

Four years ago, Frank Bastin joined the group. Frank knew Cal, and he had just sold his Bastin Carpet Corner outlet store for a pile of money. The weekly breakfasts fit nicely into his newly uncluttered routine. Linda Fray joined a few months after Frank. In her late 50s, Linda was the youngest of the five by far. However, she was trying to be a little more social since losing her husband to a heart attack, and her Aunt Gracie had always raved about the dynamic conversations she and her friends were having over their eggs and toast. Linda decided to give it a try. After a few breakfasts, she was hooked.

They initially called themselves The Breakfast Bunch, because it seemed natural for a group that met once a week to have its own moniker. The serving staff knew them by a different name, however, one they muttered each time the group commandeered the corner booth for two hours before leaving its usual 10 percent tip. “Here come The IHOP Five,” they would say with about the same amount of affection one might reserve for terms like “rat infestation,” or “irritable bowel syndrome.”

Cal overheard the name one morning while on his way to the bathroom, and he relayed it to the group. Everyone liked it. IHOP Five sounded apt for a discussion group that had started to take on some edgy topics.

Initially, the IHOP Five bonded over subjects common to their end of the generational spectrum: grandchildren, local gossip, rock music of the 1960s, the status of their retirement funds and new ways to find cheap prescription drugs. But, as the years went by and each of them spent more of their time blinking into the luminous glow of laptop computers and high-definition TVs, their conversations turned to politics.

It helped that all of them were on the same ideological side of the “what in the hell is the world coming to?” camp, though with slight variations. Frank felt certain that the country was headed toward a currency meltdown in which it would one day require a trailer of cash to buy a loaf of bread, while Gracie envisioned a one-world government where U.N. troops would ship senior citizens like her to internment camps. Cal feared a Chinese invasion, while Rob theorized that vaccines might someday trigger a zombie apocalypse. Linda thought most of these ideas were horseshit, but she shared her friends’ distrust of politicians, the mainstream media and the government, and she thought that it might be time for change of a revolutionary sort.

One way the IHOP Five liked to think they differed from other AARP members who gathered over breakfast every week was that they were not content to just gripe. They prided themselves on being a scrappy, can-do bunch that could pinpoint problems and devise solutions. For a long time, their actions involved letters, e-mails and phone calls to the local newspaper or a congressman’s office. When that approach lost its luster, the Five switched to other tactics. Some of them were a little loopy, even for deeply conservative LeFarge, Georgia.

“We need to do something about the sexting,” Gracie said, setting her cup in its saucer and giving the others a strident look. “It’s getting out of control.”

Frank and Rob chuckled. Linda covered her mouth to keep the grits from spilling out of it.

“Sexting?” Cal asked. “What the devil is sexting?”

“It’s all over TV and the Internet,” Gracie said. “Don’t you ever watch TMZ?”

Cal ran a napkin over his mouth. “I’m pretty sure I have better things to do.”

Gracie turned her gaze to Linda, who was obviously expected to say something. As the junior member, it often fell on her to explain recent pop culture phenomena that might have whizzed past her friends.

Linda took a long sip from her orange juice, trying to think of the right way to put it. After all, most of these people were Baptists.

“Well, it’s a form of texting you people do—sometimes not-so-young people do it as well,” she began. The other members of the IHOP Five leaned toward her, Frank and Rob wearing expectant grins, Gracie looking proud and determined, like she was about to lead a march on Capitol Hill.

“It’s a form of texting where, if you want to get the attention of someone you really like, you send them a photo of…yourself.”

Cal still looked puzzled. “What’s wrong with that?”

“Well, sexting involves a recent type of photo.” Linda stopped, but Gracie nodded at her to press on. “Usually a photo of your genitals.”

Cal grimaced. “You mean to say, if a boy likes a girl, then he would text her a picture of his, ah—”

“—Penis,” Gracie said. “That’s exactly right.”

Frank and Rob giggled. Cal shook his head. “Good God in Heaven,” he muttered.

“It’s completely foul,” Gracie spat, “and we need to do something about it.”

“What can we possibly do?” Frank said, smiling at Gracie. He was a life-long entrepreneur and the most levelheaded one in the bunch. He regularly sparred with the retired school teacher, though usually in a playful manner.

“Well,” Gracie said, returning Frank Bastin’s smile with an exaggerated grin of her own. “I thought we could start by asking the City of LeFarge to pass a public decency ordinance that bans sexting. I’ve
got a friend on the council who can show us how to write one up.”

Rob Ratzenberg let his fork drop, making a clatter on his half-finished plate. “I thought we were done with this procedural, government crap. It’s a lot of work, and nobody gives a damn.”

“Don’t they?” Gracie replied. “A sexting ban is the kind of thing that might get some play in the national press. Then people will indeed give a damn, as you so eloquently put it.”

“I’m tired of writing letters and drawing up petitions,” Rob said. “I’m ready for action. I thought that was what we were moving toward.”

“It is,” Cal said softly, eying the last bite of his blueberry pancakes. “But please keep your voice down, Robert.”

The group stewed over the sexting issue a little longer, until the waitress came by to refill their coffees and ask they needed anything else. Just the check please, Cal told her. Split five ways, if she didn’t mind.

“So who’s free this Saturday night?” he asked once the waitress moved on to the next table.

The other four looked at each other. There wasn’t much to do in LaFarge on a Saturday night, beyond checking the listings to see if the Bijou Twin had anything decent playing, which it usually didn’t.

“Well, you’re all invited over to the ranch, then. Please don’t feel like you need to bring anything. We’ve got plenty of food and beverages. And wear something you don’t mind getting dirty.”

Cal Bachelor leaned over his breakfast toward the others. He was a massive man whose voice reached a surprisingly squeaky pitch when whispering a critical piece of information.

“I think it’s time,” he said, “that we got about the business of learning how to defend ourselves.”

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