The Playpen by Nancy Smith Harris

It was on a teachers’ training day when Viki and I were babysitting Pops. Viki’s hot and I was packing, but we didn’t want to risk the juju.

I was in the doghouse, and so was Pops, who had been caught shooting largemouth bass in the pond with a 20-gauge shotgun, this being extra tough on my mom because Pops had been buck-naked at the time, except for the combat boots he’d worn as a marine about 75 years ago. I was in the doghouse because my grades sucked, and I only had one more year to turn it around before the whole college app thing started. Viki was crushing it on a full ride at Hawthorne Academy, and spent a lot of time telling me what a fuck-up I was.

‘You know what my mother says about you?’ she shouted towards the kitchen where I was slathering yellow mustard on white bread for Pops’ cheese sandwich. ‘She says you were born with a silver spoon up your nose.’

‘In my mouth.’


‘Silver spoon in my mouth—that’s the expression.’

‘I know that, dumb ass.’ Viki’s mother, Tanya, had scored immigration through a green card lottery, towing Viki as a toddler from St. Petersburg to Harrisburg, which, for some reason, had a large Russian population. ‘You have the whole world in your hands,’ she snapped while I tucked a napkin into Pops’ polo shirt collar. ‘You don’t know how lucky you are.’

She was definitely quoting her mom who was a stripper at Sandy’s on Canby, the club behind Three Amigos, my favorite taco place. Viki’s father, a Ukrainian nuclear scientist, isn’t necessarily where she got all her smarts. When Viki asked Tanya about her dad, Tanya said, ‘The smaller you know, the better you are.’

Viki threw a pillow at grainy footage on the tv where Dean Martin was singing ‘Everybody Loves Somebody Sometime’, a full orchestra flanking the set behind him. ‘Why don’t you turn that thing off?’

‘It calms Pops down,’ I said. ‘Keeps his mind off his problems.’

‘What problems?’

‘You make it to 97, and you’ll find out.’

Pops could barely walk anymore. He slept 19 hours out of 24. When I took care of him overnight, I heard him crying out to people long dead.

Viki slid onto the arm of his recliner and patted Pops on his shiny, hair-free pate.

He took her hand. ‘Thanks, doll.’

Viki looked into his mild blue eyes. ‘Hey, Pops,’ she said.  ‘Wanna go for a ride?’

‘Sure, toots,’ he said. ‘Let’s go to The Playpen.’

‘I’m not allowed to take him out,’ I protested. ‘Conditions of his probation – and mine.’

‘What can it hurt?’ she asked. ‘When are your parents coming home?’

‘Six, six-thirty, something like that.’

‘We’ll be back way before then.’

‘I’m on thin ice here, Vik. Mom found my pot the same day the counselor called about my grades, and she’s talking boarding school. Dad’s not talking at all. He used to stick up for me.’

‘If you worried half as much about your grades as you do about catching a little grief for giving your grandfather the pleasure of a field trip, you’d be at the top of the class—behind me at the top of the class, I mean.’

She hit the soft spot. I’d do anything for Pops. We wheeled him out to the Lexus and lifted him into the back seat.

‘Where to, Pops?’ Viki asked.

‘North Second, 200 block between Gott’s Camera Shop and Woolworths Five and Dime,’ he croaked, naming two landmarks, neither of which had probably existed since 1973, so we cruised the 200 block until he spotted the venue. He knocked on the car window with a gnarled fist. ‘Pull over.’

We were curbside to an Asian Fusion place with sidewalk seating. ‘You sure this is it, Pops?’

‘You bet, kiddo.’

Japanese folk music streamed from a set of speakers screened by bamboo. A girl with menus met us at the entrance to a seating area surrounded by lush greenery. She bowed. ‘Good afternoon. Outside or inside?’

Viki wheeled Pops up to the end of a table.

‘Where’s Candy?’  Pops craned his neck—a feat I didn’t know was still possible for him.


‘Candy, Candy, the gal who runs this cathouse.’

‘Pops,’ I said, ‘I don’t think Candy’s here anymore. We’re just going to have a little snack and bounce.’

Glasses of water, napkins, chopsticks appeared, along with soy sauce, ginger, and hot chili oil.

Our server presented her tray with a flourish. ‘Fresh Yellowtail. Just in this morning.’

Pops’ eyes bulged; I worried about a possible heart event. In one grand sweep of his wrinkled arm, he cleared the table. Tuna and rice flew through the air like confetti, and cutlery crashed to the ground. The server jumped back. I peeled off a couple of bills, stuffed them into her hand, and we fled.

Viki drove while I tried to calm Pops down in the back seat. ‘Pops, it’s not The Playpen anymore.’

He was as bummed as I’d ever seen him, and all I could do was sit there and watch him suffer one more sad bout of clarity. All I wanted in the world was to make him happy. Viki watched us in the rearview mirror and made a U-turn.

I’d never been to Sandy’s on Canby, where Tanya and Viki lived in the second-floor apartment. Viki said there were rules about minors on the premises –  something about the liquor license.

Tanya Kosevich was the hottest mother at Hawthorne Academy. She must have had Viki when she was twelve. She was what my dad called ‘yummy’. Just seeing her standing in the doorway almost gave me a boner. We wrestled Pops out of the car and into his wheelchair.

‘Terrence, how are you?’ Tanya took his face in her hands. She smelled like some exotic flower and her face so close to Pops’ stunned me, such a contrast of beauty and decrepitude. I felt sorry for Pops all over again. But Pops came to life and took Tanya’s hand.

‘It’s been a long time, babe,’ he said.

Inside, the place was softly lit and glittery. On stage, a girl in a g-string swung tassels from her nipples. I thought it was hilarious, but the three old guys in the audience were gaping like dead fish.

‘Tan, who’s this?’ The guy at the front desk studied us. Something in his tone made me want to back out of the door.

‘Bill, this is Mr. Hoover and his grandson, Ben.’

‘Tanya, you know the rules,’ Bill jerked his head toward the elevator. ‘No kids upstairs. No kids downstairs. No kids period.’

In a trance-inducing tone, Tanya reasoned with Bill while Viki and I watched. She was a pro, tilting her head seductively, laying a big smile on the guy. It was a couple of minutes before I realized Pops had wheeled himself over to the end of the bar where he was enjoying a rusty nail.

I jammed across the room and Pops hit me with a left jab that would leave him sore for weeks and me sprawled against the bar.

‘Stand down, soldier,’ he growled.

I slid onto a stool and tried to reason with him. When I looked up to see how Tanya and Viki were doing, I caught the flash from Bill’s cellphone.

I wheeled Pops back to the desk, which was hard because he was dragging his slippered toes on the floor.

‘You’re lookin for a court-martial, solder,’ he barked.

‘I have a bad feeling about this, Vik,’ I said.

‘You worry too much. Bill’s a pussy,’ she answered.

We took the elevator upstairs where Tanya pushed Pops into her room. She closed the door and we dragged a nearby table over so we could stand on it and look through the transom window.

Cooing, she led Pops to the bed. She kissed his head and undressed him the way someone might undress a sleepy kid, folding his clothes and laying them on the bureau. Then she lit a candle, propped her phone up against a lamp on nightstand, and massaged his shoulders to Frank Sinatra crooning ‘Fly Me to the Moon’. Pops began to snore. Viki started laughing and I pressed my hand over her mouth. Voices in the lobby below pulled me to the stairway where I could see two cops with Bill at the desk.

‘That asshole,’ Viki fumed.

We shoved the table out of the way and burst into Tanya’s room.

‘Quick,’ she said, pushing us out onto the fire escape on the other side of the open window.

We watched Tanya heft Pops into his wheelchair and throw a silk robe splashed with pink flamingos over his back. She wheeled him into the bathroom, and Viki motioned me to a second window where we could see Tanya rolling Pops up to the sink and tossing a towel over his head.

‘Kids? Here? ‘ Tanya looked from one officer to the other and shrugged. ‘Look for yourselves. Only my mother. I am washing her hair.’

We hightailed it down the fire escape and ran to the Lexus.

We got back to Pops’ house around 5:30 and I sank into the sofa to consider my situation. I had deserted my grandfather at a strip club. My parents would be home any minute. I saw boarding school in my future.

At a quarter to six, Tanya arrived with Pops, pushing his chair into the house with one hand as he held the other in his liver-spotted fist. He was as relaxed as I’d seen him since I was in second grade, before he started forgetting everything.

‘Until next time, my sweet,’ Pops said, kissing her hand and closing his eyes.

As usual, when Mom and Dad arrived, Pops was watching Fox News and I was pretending to watch. I was thinking about the world the way Pops must have seen it fifty years ago: The Playpen, spotlights shining down on the stage, little bits of red satin fabric falling to the gleaming stage floor, fishnet stockings peeled off, one at a time, dangled, released. I was hearing Sammy Davis, Jr., the shaking of martinis. I imagined the smoke of good cubanos, the aroma of cognac, the sweet scent of women.

‘How was your day, Dad?’ Mom hugged him and kissed his head, nodding at me.

‘I went to the salon,’ Pops said. ‘Do you like my hair this way?’

A native of Linglestown, Pennsylvania, US, Nancy Smith Harris holds a Master’s Degree in English Literature. Her work has most recently appeared in ‘Literally Stories’ and ‘the Thieving Magpie’.