Felted at Fifty

by Benjamin Gillum

Editor’s Note

The MLA program is an interdisciplinary, part-time course of study for college-educated adults who are interested in broad-based learning at the graduate level. Throughout, the MLA program fosters critical thinking, creativity, and effective communication. It offers four areas of concentration: Climate Change & Society, Globalization Past & Present, Humanities & Creative Writing, and Science & Human Values. The quality of work produced by MLA Creative Writing students and graduates equals the best of the MFA programs, and we are pleased to include these works in our publication.

May looked east through a wall of glass from the twenty-third story of the old tower of Harrah’s New Orleans. Dawn spread her rosy fingers over the ossified bends of the murky Mississippi, the marshes, and manufactured mangrove islands that protected the eastern shore of Lake Pontchartrain and New Orleans from the gnawing, rising tides of Chandeleur Sound.

Not a morning person, she saw the lighting vista courtesy of a deep run to the final table of the $1,200 pot-limit Omaha ring event. She turned away from the vista and walked like a zombie toward the bathroom. The lights blinked on as she crossed the threshold. She smelled a hint of bleach and other cleaning products mingled with the familiar smells of Wool Fat Soap and Alba Botanicals hair treatment—as close to a sense of home as she got most days.

She searched her face for signs of life. Her green eyes were tinged with hazel, bloodshot with exhaustion, lids sagging. Dark welts bloomed below them, and crow’s-feet spidered out from the corners.

The dark circles reminded her of Aeon knocking on her condo door back in Vegas weeks ago, eyes sunken within dark circles, cheeks hollow, flush-faced and desperate. May didn’t open the door at first, sure that her sister was strung out, until Aeon looked, pleading, into the security camera and said, “May, I’m sick…May, let me in.” She raised her bony arm and weakly pounded the door. “I need help, May, for real.”

May had opened the door and let her in.

“So what’s wrong now, Sis?”

Aeon hugged herself, skinny arms around bony chest, and she looked at the floor.

“I’ve got Hanta-D, May.”

They talked then for the first time in years. Aeon wanted help with bills and a ride out to the racks, like so many times before, but this time she was really sick, wasting.

May tried to banish those worries from her mind. She needed rest, to focus on the final table of the tournament tomorrow. Looking in the mirror, she pulled her forehead up and widened her eyes.

She’d had only the lightest lift and scrub, once, ten years before in 2040, for her fortieth birthday, a gift from Jesse. He told her they were meeting friends for brunch, at the Grove Park Inn. She spent the most pampered day of her life in the spa before checking in to their Age Treatment Clinic. She woke up the next day with long thin strips of NuSkin under her hair and jaw lines, and what looked like a nasty sunburn over her face, neck, hands, and forearms. Most people her age had already had several rejuves, but May liked her face, didn’t want to see it softened by the techs.

She turned toward the king-sized bed, said “Room, set alarm for one p.m. Goodnight.” She stripped naked as the shades swept slowly shut and the wall monitor flashed “Alarm set: one p.m.” She pulled the bedcover off, crawled between the sheets, and stared at the ceiling as the light dimmed.

She inventoried the foes she would face when the final table convened at two p.m. Only two players had shorter stacks than her, so she had work to do to make real money. Vasquez squeezed into the final table with only four big blinds. He should be toast before long. Then Johnny with about ten bb, he felt the pressure, for sure. May was a little more comfortable with around seventeen bb, but the antes and blinds would eat into that quickly. If she could improve to second place, that would be about seventy-five grand, enough to pay for a good bit of Aeon’s treatment. Fucking insurance…the gene therapy for Hanta-D had been out for years now, how was that still “experimental”?

May took a slow deep breath, trying to breathe peace and health in through her lungs to her heart, through her arteries, then exhaling worry and waste, a greasy gray cloud that dissipated over her head. She envisioned a pure white light sweeping her from head to toe, purifying, healing. She went back to the week on the sailboat in the Keys when she was eleven and Aeon nine—bikini-clad nut-brown otters, and Dad was still alive, the water so clear, such a gorgeous shade of blue-green, the fish among the corals, the spiny lobster brushed with garlic butter sizzling on the grill, such a heady, heady scent on the humid sea air rushing over the campground from the bay.


An electric motor gave a slight whine, and the curtains slowly opened to puffy white early afternoon clouds over the Crescent City. The D9 came on, layered percussion, wet synths, and rolling bass reminiscent of pop music of the Teens when May grew up. Their call to arms, “Love It, Don’t Leave It,” a standard at rallies to protect New Orleans for almost a decade now, started low and gently swelled. May was lost for a moment waking up, a dream of Jesse and her in the Prada poker room not long after they met, the D9 melding into the scene. Then she awoke to the early afternoon brightness. She rolled onto her back.

“OK, I’m up.”

The music waned as May rolled over and swung her legs off the bed.

“You can leave that on.”

She looked out over Chandeleur Sound in the distance, stretched her spine, then walked to the bathroom, bobbing her head to the beat.


The final table shone under spotlights up on the stage of the cavernous room, above hundreds of poker tables on the floor, full of players in two other ongoing tournaments. The final table contestants queued up in order of stack size behind the curtain off stage left, and at two p.m. the announcer blared over the wall of speakers:

“And now, we introduce the final table of the $1,200 pot-limit Omaha tourney, competing for a first-place prize of over $120,000!”

May and the others took their seats and soon cards were in the air. After only a few minutes, Vasquez pushed all-in for slightly less than full pot, an apparent blind steal from the cutoff seat, one off the button. He folded to May in the big blind, and she thought his range and the juicy odds meant she had to call with practically anything. She peeked at her cards: king of hearts, queen ten of spades, and an eight of diamonds. Her heart pounded a little harder as she pushed out a small stack of pink chips.

“I’ll call you, Vasquez. You any good?” She flipped her cards up, and watched as he shrugged and turned over the king of spades.

“I got your spades, bonita,” he said, slowly flipping the jack of spades, its one eye looking blankly forward. “And your queens.”

May exhaled, stony faced. She’d need the dealer to be kind or Vasquez was going to double up at her expense.

The blond-haired, bland-faced dealer gathered their chips, made change, and neatened their cards on the green felt for the camera. He softly rapped the table, then flipped up the flop, the turn, the river. No help, and Vasquez’s queens held up. May eyed her dwindling stack and clenched her jaw.

That was the beginning of the end. May looked down at crap cards hand after hand before she got all-in preflop with a suited ace and a pair of tens. Smitty called from the big blind and hit a low flush to send her home in eighth. The fourteen-thousand-dollar prize would do little more than cover her nut for the month.


The flight from New Orleans to Vegas filled up at the Dallas layover. Cowboy hats, gold jewelry, winking specs, and the smooth skin that said high income. The drinks flowed as the plane howled to elevation, and a boisterous buzz swarmed the plane. The flight back to Dallas would be far more subdued, May knew.

The bejeweled tourist gamblers were standard on flights into Vegas. What May noticed, though, were dozens of people wearing nose filters or surgical masks. Must be a new flu scare. Since the pandemic of ’38, every time a new strain hit the news, the filters popped up like mushrooms after a rain. Curious, she tongue-clicked into her specs to search. Yep, looked like a routine outbreak of a new flu, spreading among people and dogs that lack recent vaccines. May had the full array of flu vaccines just a month ago, so she wasn’t worried for herself, but she asked her genie when Chili last had his vaccine. The scruffy tan and white feist hadn’t been vaccinated for almost a year: she’d have to see to that…a few moments later she had an appointment with Dr. Diaz’s office.


Las Vegas, home sweet home. Towers shimmered in the midday heat as the biofueled Airbus banked in a graceful curve over the strip. The giant golden lion of MGM watched the plane straighten and drop in final descent. The new east wing of the venerable casino, the glistening lion reached a thousand feet over Koral Lane. To the west, behind the city, the Spring Mountains clawed up at the sky in shocking contrast to the glitz.

May’s pulse picked up as the plane glided to the tarmac. With a gentle thump, the rear wheels touched down, then the front, the tug of deceleration, scattered applause, and whoops of excitement. As the plane slowed to taxi she felt a wave of relief and adrenaline: return to the city of dreams, a homecoming, and a rush of anxiety. Aeon!

As the plane taxied to the gate, the flight attendant came over the loudspeaker:

“Welcome to Las Vegas! The temperature here today is expected to hit 120 degrees, so stay cool and hydrated. Thank you for flying Southwest Air!”

May met her luggage in the express luggage hall approaching ground transport: the mobile smart bags fell in behind her. She’d splurged on them after a good finish in a circuit event in Cherokee last year. She negotiated with the taxi stand on her way out, fingers twitching, picked up by the bracelet interface.

As she walked through the air curtain, the outside heat stung her eyes. The french-fried smell of biodiesel exhaust and the high-pitched whine of electric motors combined with the diesel clatter, the heat, and the scream of jet engines to give her an instant throbbing headache.

By the time she approached the curb, a Tesla 2 a couple of hundred yards away blinked in her overlay then pulled up beside her. The tiny commuter popped the passenger door and luggage hatch open.

First things first: home to freshen up and walk Chili, then to Aeon’s rack to pick up a few things and take care of her cat, and finally visit Aeon at the hospital. En route home, May tongue-clicked into her specs to scan a summary of the latest on Hanta-D, the variant of Hantavirus infecting Aeon. Nothing much new…one team thought they’d pinpointed the origin of the disease in Matamoros. Merc-Walmart still offered the only FDA approved treatment: gene therapy injected with a series of artificial viruses—tricks learned from HIV to evade the natural immune response. The therapy led to a cure in about two out of three patients and made the disease manageable in most of the rest. Without the treatment roughly half the infected recovered on their own in about a month or two, but, in the other half, chronic fever, trembling, and wasting untouched by the body’s natural defenses usually killed the host within four to six months. So far, a month and a half in, Aeon had slowly, steadily worsened.

The Two waited outside her downtown condo while May had a quick shower and took Chili out for a few minutes. Then she was back on the road.

May would never know where Aeon picked up Hanta-D, but she had a good idea it was in the stacks out past Sam’s Town, where she lived, where nobody cared enough to run the junkies or the rats out of their squats. As she turned into the stacks, the Two flashed her a high crime area warning. She agreed to the $20 surcharge and drove on.

She opened the door to Aeon’s rack. The stifling heat and stinging smell of cat piss made her gasp and wish she’d brought nose filters. She flipped the old-fashioned light switch up and down: no power, no surprise. She just hoped the water was still on. Dim light filtered around the edges of the blackout shades over the windows. Shiva, a chocolate point Siamese, stretched on the bed and yowled with indignation and pleading.

“Well, hello, baby,” May said, as Shiva leapt to the floor and rubbed against her leg. May stooped to rub her head.

“How’s Shiva? Are you pitiful?”

May stepped across the narrow room, by the lowered Murphy bed with dirty sheets on her right, flanked by a pile of clothes and a well-worn easy chair by the window. Bottles and cups nearly covered the kitchen table on her left. She raised the blind a few inches. Searing white sunlight flashed into the room, lighting up densely swirling dust motes.

May sat down and surveyed the rack: two hundred square feet of squalor: walls, floors, and seven-and-a-half-foot ceilings the uniform slick gray of plasticized low-carbon concrete. The stacks had been built in the early 2030s during the big affordable housing push of the first Chelsea Clinton administration. President Clinton had campaigned on ending homelessness in the U.S. and had followed through with about two trillion dollars of funding for projects like these. The campaign had mostly worked: the number of people on the streets dropped dramatically. May was sure they were a good thing, and maybe if the place was cleaned up and decorated it wouldn’t be bad, but she could hardly imagine living here. At least with the all-concrete construction there was no problem with noise from the neighbors.

Shiva leapt up into May’s lap to nuzzle her chin, purring loudly. May stroked Shiva’s back, and the cat closed its eyes and pushed harder against May’s jaw, beginning to drool.

“Poor baby, you needed some loving, didn’t you?”

Shiva looked at her through half-closed eyes, blissed out by the attention. Then she turned, jumped down to the floor and trotted over to the tiny galley kitchen to stand at its empty food bowl.

“Rawwll!” The cat rubbed her head against the cabinet door and looked expectantly back at May.

“Let’s get you some food and fresh water.” May walked the few steps over and squatted to get the water bowl. Only a half inch of water remained, filthy with cat hair and bits of food. May dumped the bowl in the sink and opened the faucet to a short-lived dribble of water and hiss of air.

“Damn it.”

She double clicked her tongue: “Las Vegas Valley Water District.”

Her specs flashed to their site, spooling video of flying above Hoover Dam and Lake Meade. A smooth baritone voice began, “Providing clean, plentiful water to Las…”

May interrupted, “Pay bill and restore service, Apartment 423, 725 Lucky Way.”

The site flashed to the bill: three months behind, $2,200 with fees, penalties, and restoration of service.

“Jesus, Aeon!”

She agreed to the terms and paid. They would eventually come after her for the debt anyway, as Aeon’s closest kin.

She knocked on the door across the hall. A red LED lit up on a small panel by the door and a tinny voice asked, “Yeah, what you want?”

“Hey, I’m Aeon’s sister, May. She’s your neighbor? I wondered if I can borrow a little water for the cat until they get it turned back on.”

“Five bucks,” said the compressed voice from the panel.

May closed her eyes and wondered what ever happened to simple neighborly favors.

“Yeah, OK,” she said.

After a minute she heard the locks turn. The door opened to reveal a pasty young man in shorts, cheap specs and bracelets, and nothing else, greasy black hair pushed to one side. His rack was lit by a wall-sized display where a battle raged in a war-torn alien cityscape.

“You can credit this account,” he said, his accent standard West American, with a hint of some Eastern European locale she couldn’t pinpoint. Her specs flashed a pulsing bank icon in the air between them.

“Done,” she said, after a few seconds processing the charge.

He pointed to the kitchen and turned back to his game.

“Shut the door on your way out, hmm?”

Back in Aeon’s rack, Shiva lapped at the water from the big stainless steel mixing bowl while May filled the red plastic food bowl with generic dry food.

“Who knows what’s in this shit, but it’ll keep you from starving, won’t it Shiva?”

She set the bowl down on the floor, then stood and wiped sweat from her forehead. Jesus, it was hot. Thank God for the city-mandated minimum air conditioning that kept interior temperatures from rising above 95.

Now for the bad part: the litter box. Ugh. There was one reason she wouldn’t have a cat, and in the cramped bathroom under the sink was an eye-watering example. After she’d bagged and sealed the cat shit and ammonia reek and poured fresh litter in its place, May gathered the toiletries and clothes Aeon had asked for, pulled the shade back tight against the scorching sun, gave Shiva one last scratch behind the ears, closed and locked the door, and headed down the dimly lit, gray concrete hall.

The Two waited in the temp parking and popped open a door as she approached. She collapsed in and asked for max AC. The cool blast from the dash felt divine. May lifted her arms and let her pits feel the blessed cool air.


Aeon lay in the hospital bed, sunken eyed and sallow, with tubes trailing away from her nostrils and right forearm. She looked over as May entered the room, and her eyes brightened a bit in the depths of their hollows.

“Sis,” she croaked, “any luck in NOLA?”

“Could have been worse,” May said as she stepped over to the bed. “How you doing?”

Aeon’s shoulders rose in a barely perceptible shrug. She looked pointedly away as tears rose in her brown eyes.

“Could be worse, I guess,” she said. Her blond hair lay limp over her right shoulder. She lifted her emaciated arm to push the swelling tears aside.

“God damn it, I don’t want to cry.” She pinched her eyes and gave her head a weak shake.

“How was Shiva? Did you get my stuff?”

May took her hand and said, “She’s fine, don’t worry. Yeah I got your stuff.” May looked, blinking, out the window at the jagged, rusty teeth of the Simmons Mountains. “They say it may hit 120 today…feels like a furnace out there.”

“What’s new?” Aeon said with a bitter laugh. She looked up into May’s eyes, then out the window. “Fucking hellhole.” She clenched her bony fists, then made a visible effort to relax. “Wish I’d never left Asheville, May.” She blinked hard twice, then gave into the tears. “Wish I’d never seen this fucking place, goddamn it.”

May looked away from the mountains to the pastel desert landscape hanging over the bed, saguaro cacti in creamy white and yellow bloom. Her chest constricted and her face flushed: she had literally begged Aeon to move to Vegas a couple years ago, after finding out about a string of arrests for shoplifting and vagrancy in Asheville.

May had thought she could help Aeon get a job, get straightened out, but when Aeon moved in with her, sleeping on the sofa bed in her one bedroom condo, that didn’t work out so well. May helped her get a job waiting tables at Soba, where her friend Itzu managed the floor, but with May out of town in Vancouver for a tourney, Aeon didn’t last a week. May came home to find her passed out in her bed with a scuzzy looking boy at two in the afternoon. By the look of the sheets, the takeout containers, the bottles and inhalers crowding the bedside tables, they had quite a time.

“Because things were going so well in Asheville, right?” May asked, anger rising.

“No! Because then I wouldn’t have Hanta-D, May!” Aeon said. “And I’d have friends who’d come visit if I were sick. Why would you say something like that to me? Jesus!” Tears streaked down her gaunt face. She squeezed her eyes shut and covered her face with her hands.

“I’m sorry, E,” May said. She sat down in the pale blue padded vinyl chair by the bed. The vinyl was cold on the backs of her legs just above her knees where her skirt didn’t reach. She shivered.

“I’m sorry,” May repeated, “I’m just a dumbass.” She leaned forward, elbows on her knees, forehead in her hands, then leaned back and looked briefly to her left at Aeon.

“What’d the doctor say this morning?” May asked.

“Same old shit. They’re keeping the fever down, but can’t do much for the wasting or trembling…there may be a clinical trial coming up in a few weeks if I’m still here. Some nanotech shit,” Aeon said.

She closed her eyes. May couldn’t think of anything to say. They listened to the clatter of heels passing down the hall, the shush of the heat pump and air filters, the muted clicks of the oxygen supply, a beeping alarm from a room across the hall, the low moan of the old lady two doors down. May studied her fingernails, chewed to the quick, as usual. May looked over to see her sister’s eyes closed.

“Do you want to rest?” May asked.

Aeon’s eyes fluttered open briefly, and she nodded.

“Go ahead. I’ll be right here,” May said.

“OK, sis,” Aeon said, closing her eyes and letting her head sag further into the pillow. “I don’t blame you, you know.”

“I know, E, I know. Just rest now.”

Aeon crossed her trembling arms over her shrunken chest and let out a deep sigh.

May tongue-clicked into her specs and scanned the NY Times news feed:

* Arctic sea ice melted at a record pace, and they predicted open water by the first of August, the earliest date yet. May recalled when she was twenty-seven the sea ice all melted for the first time, for a week in September. Now it was an annual event, and cruise ships regularly sailed across the North Pole in late August and early September. May had never been: they cost an arm and a leg, but she understood the appeal.

* China’s latest Five Year Plan called for retirement of their last coal plants by 2055, which would be pretty much the end of large-scale coal power worldwide. Carbon sequestration and storage had never been able to compete with the other low-carbon tech.

* A car bomb exploded in Austin, killing more than one hundred. The Texas Liberation Party claimed credit: the radical Christian secessionist group had grown more active again after the Supreme Court sided with the Feds, finding that the Texas secession referendum of 2046 carried no legal weight.

* In the southeastern U.S., spring flooding had yielded to a scorching heat wave. Atlanta hit a high temp over 105 for the eleventh day in a row.

The door to Aeon’s room swung open and a nurse poked his head in and gave a gentle knock.

“Hello. I need to check on the patient? I’m sorry.” He was a small, thin man with kind brown eyes and a shaved head.

May closed her spec display and stood. Her hips and upper back ached.

“She just got to sleep a few minutes ago,” she said.

“I’m sorry, this will just take a moment. May I?” He gestured at the bed.

“Of course.” May turned to Aeon, who was blinking awake at the disturbance. “The nurse is here to check on you. I’m going to go take care of a few things and go to work. I’ll be back tomorrow.” She bent over her little sister and kissed her cheek.

“Get ‘em, Sis,” Aeon said as May straightened up with a grunt and turned to leave. The nurse nodded to her, standing to the side to let her pass, then May was out the door.


On the monorail, May ran through her finances. If she cashed her bankroll out, then she could cover Aeon’s treatment. That’s a no-brainer, right, if there was no other option? She’d been skirting around this decision in her mind, but Aeon’s time was running out, and May had to do something. Her prosperity for Aeon’s life? That’s what Mom and Dad would expect. May would still have her health, she could get a job dealing at one of the low-end casinos downtown, work her way up, grind the low-limit games, sell a piece of her action to get entry to tourneys. Move into a rack, stop using taxis, eating out, traveling. No-brainer. People lived worse all the time. But, at fifty, that’s not how she planned things to go.

When the monorail pulled into the first Bellagio stop, May strolled out with the crowd into a lobby with hundreds of blooming tulips quivering in the blast of the AC. Pulsating fountains added a soft cacophony of pumps, jets, and splashes. May walked with the flow of tourists the quarter mile or so to the casino, past shops selling chocolate, jewelry, and fashion accessories, and cafés where a decent sandwich cost $50.

As May approached the poker room, the waitlist made itself available to her system and queried if she’d like to be put on the lists for her regular games: 5/10 hold’em, 2/5 PLO, 2/5 PLO-8 and 2/5 UK. Should this be the time for her to move up stakes? She thought twice and decided she’d better check out the tables first…if they looked juicy, she’d take a shot.

Walking down the broad, crowded hallway approaching the poker room, on the right, windows opened up into the vast poker room. It was about 4:30 on Thursday, hardly prime time: the room was about half full. May continued to the entrance and nodded to Paul Chey, who manned the security station.

“Hey Paul, how you doing?” she asked when she got to the front of the line, as she removed her specs and bracelets and put the lightweight gear into a bin for storage while she played: no electronics allowed in the room. They were the only electronics she wore: she wasn’t into the whole Human 2.0 thing. Call her old-fashioned, but she liked to spend most of her time in unaugmented space…not that she’d give up her specs for anything, but the full immersion rigs or implants some people wore were another story altogether.

“Great, May, yourself?” Paul answered, closing and sealing the cover on the bin. He had her handprint the pad on the cover, then he put it on the conveyer into the automated storage room.

“Great, thanks. See you later,” May said smiling and nodding. She didn’t usually feel so fake in her near daily greetings and pleasantries with casino staff, but what was she supposed to say? “Well, Paul, my sister edges toward death as we speak, and soon I’ll either be broke or have a dead sister, so frankly, my life sucks right now. Thanks for asking!”

She nodded goodbye to Paul and shuffled forward until she was next in line to go through the scanner. A green light indicated it was OK to step into the machine. She stood still in the circle on the floor under a wooden arch. She closed her eyes as the machine hummed to life, a distant swarm of cicadas followed by low thumps. She opened her eyes after the third thump to see the light ahead of her turn from red to green and the thin gate barring passage sweep up to let her pass. She stepped out the other side to be greeted by a young woman with feathered blond hair, features perfectly in tune with the latest trends, and a tasteful glimpse of cleavage beneath her tight-fitting black suit.

“Welcome to the Bellagio Poker Room! Care for a rejuvenating tonic?” the young lady asked.

“Sure, thanks.” May took the shot-glass of fizzy green liquid, a nutraceutical designed, in part, to counteract the mild radiation dose from the scanner. She slugged back the shot and set the glass down on the counter. The tonic tasted minty, grassy, and gravelly. The familiar ritual made her smile. She stepped slowly forward, soaking in the sights and sounds of her main workplace. Her spirits lifted and her pulse quickened in anticipation of the action to come.

The poker room spread out before her, wallpaper and drapes shades of gold, mahogany wood panels, crystal chandeliers and row upon row of green-felted oval tables surrounded by players of every size, shape, and color in black leather chairs, who toyed with their chips making a distinctive, pervasive clacking. The murmur of players and dealers rippled underneath, pierced by shouts of triumph or anguish.

May cruised over to the floor’s main desk and waited behind a couple of tourists, probably from L.A., if May correctly read the age and style of the oh so flash, but slightly passé, flickering flame holographic tats on their forearms. When they turned away from the desk, one of them, a short, muscled man, stepped in close to May, eyes veiled by drooping lids with unnaturally long and thick eyelashes, the skin on his face a dusky red. Abruptly he thrust his face toward hers and widened his eyes; they burned red like coals. May inhaled sharply, turned her face away and stepped past him to the desk. He chuckled and elbowed his partner.

At the desk, May checked out a pair of house specs and bracelets: stripped down junk with no outside net access. They let you work the waitlist, order food and drinks, order chips if you had money in a casino account, browse a limited selection of news, and view a navigation aide for the poker room to help find a given table in the vast room. She checked the waitlist and found that she’d soon be up for a seat at 5/10 hold’em. In the meantime she slowly walked past the tables spreading the mid-limit games she rarely played, but was thinking of taking a shot at tonight. She nodded to, or quietly greeted, dealers and regulars at nearly every table.

At a 10/20 hold’em table, Johanne, one of her favorite dealers, gave her a wink and shot a glance toward an empty seat next to him, then looked at her with a raised brow. The table looked pretty juicy: broad stacks of red chips in several places with quite a few young executive types who already appeared well into their cups. As she lingered a couple feet from the table, Johanne swept the folds into the muck and the flop bets into the center. Looked like there had been a couple of raises preflop: with four players still in, the pot was more than $1000 already.

May thought, what the hell, and she punched through the system to find no wait for that game. She locked up the seat, and sitting down she briefly touched Johanne’s shoulder.

“Johanne, be kind, alright?” May said.

He chuckled and said “Good luck, May.”

She settled into the cushy leather seat and bought in for $1000—keeping it small to start while she took the temperature of the table. She ordered a latte and watched the hand play out.

On a flop of queen, ten, five, rainbow, first to act was one of the yuppies, a slim brunette with her hair in a tight stylish bob, who stabbed at the pot with $400. May wasn’t sure what she hoped to accomplish with such a small bet from out of position, probably trying to find out where she stood, but the bet was too weak. May watched as an older man with wire-rimmed glasses and an ancient Broncos cap studied the brunette’s face for a moment. May had played with him before: a regular in the 10/20 and 20/40 hold’em games. She would have to be careful around him. He cut out ten stacks of reds and pushed them silently forward.

“Raise it to two thousand,” Johanne said.

The bobbed brunette subtly shook her head, her face rigid. Queens no good, thought May.

Broncos looked impassively across the table at his opponents yet to act. The first hesitated a few moments then spun her cards into the muck. May guessed she was female. Spiky platinum hair and enormous Louis Vuitton glasses covered most of her face,

“You stole my move, man,” she said, voice shockingly deep.

May studied the last to act, a young man, tall—broad chest, maybe late twenties, moneyed, cocky, peach golf shirt, brown hair buzzed short to his skull, and two days of stubble carefully groomed into a neat beard. He gave off a subtle vibe of excitement as he looked at Broncos, at Broncos’ stack, then down at his own stack. He shook his head back and forth then said:

“You probably got me, but all-in.”

May estimated he had at least four thousand more on top of Broncos’ raise.

Broncos scratched behind his right ear and looked at Stubble Boy through squinted eyes.

“I probably got you, huh?” Broncos said. “I don’t think so.”

He snorted and lifted his cards from the table, briefly flashing a pair of kings to Johanne and May before he buried them into the muck with a flick of his wrist.

Stubble Boy broke into a broad grin and lifted his cards from the felt so that the players on either side could see them as Johanne swept Broncos’ chips into the pile and pushed the mound of reds toward the winner.

“Like I said, you probably got me,” Stubble Boy said, and he threw his cards face up in the center of the table: the two of spades and the three of clubs. “Nut low, baby. Read ‘em and weep." He laughed and winked at Broncos and raked in the pot.

Wow, thought May, a real loose cannon. She bought another thousand dollars’ worth of redbirds.

Four hours later, May had rebought for $2,000 twice, and was down to about $1,700 in chips. Stubble Boy had built his stack to more than $20,000. He played loose-aggressive, but kept turning up the best hand when called down in a big pot. May had seen enough to know he deserved respect, but she still wasn’t entirely sure if he was decent and lucky or brilliantly deceptive and manipulative. She still hoped to snatch a chunk of his stack. Her stack was so small in comparison that she thought she could catch him splashing around to double up at least once. She had moved seats so she sat two seats to his left.

As the cards came out, she watched him make a big deal of the server bringing him another mixed drink, tipping two redbirds. Funny, he never seemed to get drunk: probably faking the whole show, or had that gene twist.

One off the dealer button, May toyed at scrolling through the news feed while she closely watched her opponents receive cards, look at them, and act. Two folds, then a very large woman raised the bet to a hundred dollars. She dripped gold and jewels and sported an enormous head of strawberry blond hair shaped into a glossy disc like a flying saucer.

“Going to have to pay to play, my friends,” she trumpeted, full of brassy confidence.

Another fold, then Stubble Boy slid three stacks of reds forward.

“Let’s build a real pot,” he said, grinning, his teeth whiter than white. “Three hundred to go.”

Another fold and the action came to May. She peeked at the corners of her cards: yes! Kings! Her heartbeat picked up a bit, but decades of practice let her breathe slowly while she thought about how much to raise. All-in at this point was too much: she’d just run off her customers.

“I’ll raise,” she said. “Make it nine hundred.” She slid the chips forward.

“The bet is nine hundred,” the dealer echoed.

Saucer Head huffed and puffed for about a minute before pitching her cards into the muck. May heard her muttering something about May being too tight for her to call.

“I’ll give you some action,” Stubble Boy said with little hesitation, cutting the chips out of his enormous stack.

May nodded. While the dealer swept all the chips from that round of betting into the center, May gave a silent plea to the universe: let me have this one.

The flop came out ace, seven, and eight, with two hearts. Great, of course, straight and flush draws, and an ace.

Stubble Boy sipped his drink and quietly checked, just a tiny tap of his index finger.

Blood thumping in her ears, May thought for a few moments. She had already decided she was pot committed, and with the draws on the board, she didn’t want to risk giving him a free card. If he had an ace, so be it. She pushed her remaining chips toward the middle, the neat stacks tumbling into a heap.

“That is all-in,” the dealer said, quickly restacking the chips.

“I call,” Stubble Boy said before she was done. He flipped over his cards: ace-ten of clubs. “I’m sorry, darling. Kings?” he asked.
Crap, he didn’t even think of folding his shitty ace. How’d he peg her for kings? May kept her cards face down.

“You got me,” she said.

The dealer burned and turned: blank. Again, blank.

May buried her cards in the muck and looked down at the bare green fabric in front of her. Felted again. She stood up: enough punishment for one day.

May pushed her chair back and turned away. In a haze of frustrated adrenaline, she walked to the checkout desk oblivious of the acquaintances who tried to catch her eye or speak to her as she passed. She returned the house specs and retrieved her own. Paul was still there, and he knew better than to ask how it went. He wished her a perfunctory good night, and she gave him a slight nod before heading out the entryway.

She walked out into the broad, crowded hallway, berating herself silently. What the hell was she doing, dropping $6,000 at 10/20, over her head. Stubble Boy was far better than she’d given him credit for at first. She drifted along with the crowd toward the monorail.

What kind of pro was she? Great idea, trying to move up limits while Aeon was sick. Shouldn’t she know better than to try to move up when she was stressed? What kind of life was she living anyway, full of a thousand acquaintances, but no real friends or family? She was obviously never going to break into the upper echelon of players. The only way she’d ever really get ahead would be to get lucky in a big tournament, and she well knew the odds of that were long. Did she really want to make a living beating up on tourists twenty years from now?

Despair rising in her chest, she veered toward the bathrooms. She caught a glimpse of herself, almost unrecognizable, in a gilded mirror on the wall on the way in. She quickly looked away to the floor and moved on into a marble-walled stall. She sat down, dropped her head into her hands, and thought about crying—crying for her sister, for her own wasted life, for the scorched earth, for the tourists hung-over and broke flying back home to their routine lives. But no tears came.

She scrubbed her face with the palms of her hands, then dropped her hands to her thighs, palms up. She studied their cracks and lines, the way the color went from pale brown in the center of her palm, to mottled red on the surrounding fleshy pads, to angry purple in the larger lines. They seemed alien, unattached. She turned them over and gazed at their backs: tendons and veins bulging from the light brown skin. A dozen faint age spots bloomed, and the skin was thin and crinkled with hundreds of tiny ridges when she flexed her fingers back.

In her youth, she’d really loved the sun. She had felt so good, stretched out on a rock by the Rocky Broad, letting the warmth of the sun and rock dry her without a towel, chasing away the chill of the mountain stream. She’d soaked in the heat like a lizard on a cool fall day. She’d felt so alive, so relaxed, so Zen, basking in the sun, and she’d loved the way she looked late in the summer, hair lightened toward blond, skin a smooth supple brown. Now the backs of her hands looked like lizard skin, and she was breaking down in a toilet stall in the most superficial city in the world. Where did she go wrong?

She straightened her back, dropped her shoulders and took a deep breath, then let out a long sigh. She relaxed her belly and released her bladder, then wiped and stood to go. She needed to clear her head. She needed space to think. Maybe a long drive? She could finally go out to the Spring Mountains.

Outside the bathroom she turned away from the Flamingo Road monorail toward the Strip. As she walked, she tongue-clicked into her specs and queried who had good day rates for a rental car…something kind of sporty, that she could drive instead of pure autopilot, with plenty of range. Shortly, she arranged for a Prius ES to pick her up at the Bellagio main entrance. It would be there in about half an hour, plenty of time to grab a bite. Back in her specs, she ordered shrimp Pad Thai to go from Noodles as she drifted with the orderly southeast flow of humanity toward the dome over the lake in front of the casino.

After picking up her dinner and a large bottle of sparkling water she headed on southeast. The corridor opened up into the dome. Like everyone else, she walked with one eye on the crowd and one eye on the incredible water fountain exhibit. When she reached the wide bank of doors leading outside, she paused, turned and looked back across the dome at the flying streams and blobs of water, at the soaring walkways and the mezzanine high above the water where she had spent so many good times shooting the shit in the players lounge. It hadn’t been such a bad life. She turned and walked through the triple set of automatic doors.

Outside, the sun had long been set, but the temperature was still over a hundred. Some few brave souls had begun to walk outside from casino to casino, but the vast majority took cabs, buses, or monorail to move around the city, even in the dead of night. With all the concrete, steel, and asphalt the city didn’t really cool down too much until a couple of hours before dawn.

May’s Prius notified her that it was on its way up the drive from Las Vegas Boulevard, and in a moment she saw it queuing up with the other vehicles bringing people to and from the Bellagio. A sleek, silver four-door powered by a substantial battery pack and powerful twin electric motors, the ES also had a small solid oxide fuel cell and ethanol tank for range extension.

When the car reached her, she walked around to the driver side and got in, activated the manual controls and took the wheel. North on Las Vegas Boulevard, west on Flamingo, south on I-15, recently renamed the Harry Reid Memorial Freeway, past the airport and the south end of the Strip, then she exited onto 160, Blue Diamond Road, headed for the mountains. But, she was soon in suburban sprawl hell. Ticky-tack houses, strip malls, fast food, and stop lights every quarter mile. Right, this is why she never came out here. Stupidest idea ever: try to take a relaxing drive to the mountains, but go at night on a route through suburbia.

OK, she had enough. She pulled over into the next strip mall, a dinky little thing with the trifecta of a bail bondsman, a pawnshop, and a check cashing business to go with a hole in the wall Chinese shop. Depressing. She wheeled around and parked where she could watch traffic flow by on 160, and she turned the radio on to KNPR, 88.9, local public radio, some kind of world-beat music. She pulled out her Pad Thai, opened the paper carton, and the aroma of peanuts, fish sauce, chilies, and shrimp filled the car. She closed her eyes and inhaled deeply, then squeezed the lime over the top of the noodles. She pulled the throwaway chopsticks from their red paper sheath, broke them apart, and deftly lifted a large mouthful of noodles to her mouth. Delicious.

She vacantly watched traffic stream past, then halt for the light, stream past, halt: all these people living out on the edge of the city and on the edge of the desert. Guess it was just a place to live like any other suburb, except water cost a fortune, you couldn’t grow anything, and you could hardly go outside during the middle of the day. On the other hand you had a steady stream of money coming into Vegas from all over the world, so that pretty much explained why people still lived here.

As the carbs hit her bloodstream, she relaxed a little and thought, “So, what to do?” She needed to get back to the hospital and check on Aeon. Tomorrow she would make a last ditch effort with the insurance company, and if that failed, then she’d liquidate her bankroll to pay for gene therapy. No-brainer. When Aeon was better, maybe they’d move back to Asheville together, get out of this hellhole for good.

May folded the top of the paper takeout container closed, shifted to reverse, and wheeled over to the stoplight. At the red light, she signaled a left turn, and watched the traffic stream past, waiting for the green light. A family walked across the intersection in front of her, father darkly tanned, black hair, with a little girl, maybe two years old, straddling the back of his neck, fists pulling his hair; mother walked beside and another little girl, maybe four years old, trailed slightly behind, tugged along by her mom. The little girl looked up toward May, eyes dazzled by the headlights. May smiled and waved at her as tears welled unbidden. She wept then, for Aeon, for Mom and Dad, and for herself. The stoplight turned green, blurred by tears. May took a moment to pinch them from her eyes, to blink them away, and then she hit the accelerator.

Benjamin Gillum grew up in Asheville, North Carolina, the son of two teachers. He and his wife, Heather Rayburn, live there still. Ben works as a science writer with a focus on climatology and as a real estate investor and agent. He graduated with a Master of Liberal Arts degree from UNC Asheville in December, 2013.

About Felted at Fifty—This story explores themes of family, risk, health, and aging set in a warmer world in 2050. Las Vegas seemed a good setting to highlight some of the impacts of global warming, and the primary character’s occupation as a poker player reflects some of my own past experience.