A Prayer for Owen Meany

by: John Irving

Chapter 2: The Armadillo

Summary Chapter 2: The Armadillo


John remembers his mother, whose name was Tabitha, but who was almost always called Tabby. He describes her manner of dressing, which accentuated her good looks without showing them off, and her touchability. Everyone wanted to touch her, he says, and she was catlike about being touched, either freezing, ducking, or luxuriating in the contact. He does not remember her flirting with men, but imagines that she must have done so on the Boston and Maine railway line, which took her into Boston for her singing lessons. It was on this line that she met John's father, and on this line that she met the man she married, Dan Needham, the man for whom she took John away from the Congregationalist Church and to the Episcopalian.

John remembers the night when his mother told the family about Dan Needham. John is six; it is 1948. John's mother simply announces, at dinner, that she has met another man on "the good old Boston and Maine." After reassuring Mrs. Wheelwright that she is not pregnant again, and telling John that the man is not his father, she tells them that he is a drama teacher who is applying for a job at Gravesend Academy; he is also a Harvard graduate, a fact that John's grandmother finds impressive. Suddenly, the doorbell rings, and Dan Needham appears in the foyer. A rumpled, red-headed, young-looking man, he is very different from the attractive young men John's mother usually dates. Where most of those men are awkward and diffident around John, Dan Needham gives him a mysterious paper bag. He tells John not to open it, but to alert him if it moves. As the adults talk in the living room, John is unable to resist the temptation, and opens the bag. He sees a horrible monster, and screams. Dan laughingly tells John's mother, "I told you he'd open the bag!"

The monster, it turns out, is merely a stuffed armadillo, a prop Dan was using in his lecture at Gravesend Academy. He has just been hired as a history professor, focusing on the way drama and performance distinguish different historical epochs. He gives the armadillo to John to keep, and John cherishes it. Owen also loves it, and the two of them create a game in which one of them hides it in the John's grandmother's attic, and the other has to find it.

John remembers his childhood visits to his mother's sister Martha and her husband Alfred Eastman in the White Mountains in northern New Hampshire. On the train, he always eats too many tea sandwiches, and is forced to use the terrifying restroom--simply a hole cut out in the bottom of the car--before they reach Sawyer Depot. John is simultaneously mesmerized and frightened by his three cousins, Noah (three years older than John), Simon (two years older), and Hester (less than a year older), who are used to a far rougher and more athletic life than John is. He goes skiing with them, but where they are expert skiers, he is a novice, constantly falling down. Hester, who is obsessed with the idea of sex, warns him that he will make himself sterile if he isn't careful.

John remembers waterskiing with his cousins on Loveless Lake, and playing King of the Mountain with them on great sawdust piles in Uncle Alfred's lumberyards; but he says that what really made the contests thrilling was the presexual tension he associated with Hester. Confronted with a burly, rich, masculine father and a gentle and feminine mother, constantly beaten in contests by her older brothers, Hester's only recourse, when she was slightly older, seems to have been "to intimidate every girlfriend either of them ever had and to fuck the brains out of every boy they ever knew." John thinks that Hester was the product of her environment, while Noah and Simon argue that she was born that way. Still, John says that the deck was stacked against her from the start, even before adolescence. He remembers being forced to kiss Hester as a penalty for losing games; the first time, they had to tie Hester to the bed, and later, John began losing the game on purpose.

Owen is always jealous when John goes to visit his cousins. He insists that John not take the armadillo to Sawyer Depot, and says that he should get to take it home with him while John is gone. When he carries it home, Owen brings a box stuffed with cotton to carry the armadillo home in--a box used to transport monuments by Owen's father, part of whose granite business is the selling of granite gravestones. One Thanksgiving, John's cousins come to his grandmother's house in Gravesend--80 Front Street is the address--and John tentatively introduces them to Owen Meany, fearful of what they might do to him.

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