Simply referred to as “the old woman,” the heroine in Nate House’s “When Snow Falls on Atlantic City” lives a careworn existence, slaving away to please an unloving husband. She stays because, we find out, she’s too “embarrassed” to assert herself in what is a somewhat comfortable prison. Finally, however, she sheds the trappings of a meek wife and, mimicking a young couple she encounters, runs uncharacteristically away to the “World’s Favorite Playground,” a.k.a. Atlantic City. Triggering her outbreak is a memory of a missed opportunity that has long haunted her: A boy from her youth whose affection she had turned away out of prim or shy embarrassment; the enigma of first love she had foregone for the ennui of what would be an ordinary, and later devolving to a loveless, marriage.
The husband, simply referred to as the “old man,” remains mostly off-stage, but he is effectively repellant. In one scene that illustrates perfectly their marriage, he masturbates, indifferent to her. His callousness serves as a catalyst for his wife’s long-brewing awakening: “Even her husband seemed to forget that she was once something else. He did not know that sixteen years was plenty of time to form ideas and dreams of what life could be like, even though she could no longer remember what they were.”
To complement the emotional estrangement of his heroine, House also evokes a more general and constant feeling of “foreignness” in the old woman. Torn from her native land at the behest of her husband, she has never felt at home where she has put roots down. Having fled a mere two blocks away from home, she feels like a foreigner in her own city. During a casino-bound bus drive, she assumes the role of tourist, taking in the sights she’d been around for a long time for the first time. At one point, she realizes that “she did not belong here, that it was potentially dangerous, but what did it matter? She needed to see the world outside even if it was ugly, decrepit and dangerous.” A woman who had been forced to trek to the New World gets a chance to voyage to a newer world, this time of her own volition.
House’s is an unassuming story, evoking poignancy through the simplest of means, never overwhelming us with the language equivalent of clownish makeup, maintaining instead its readers’ attention through its subdued beauty.
Read, comment on, and share “When Snow Falls on Atlantic City,” our latest Story Spotlight.