Engaging Faith: Practical lesson ideas and activities for Catholic Educators

May 5, 2010

In Praise and Prayer for Mary


The following excerpt is from the recently published The Catholic Spirit: An Anthology for Discovering Faith Through Literature, Art, Film, and Music. This selection quotes author John Fante's "stream of consciousness" writing in praise and prayer of the Blessed Mother. John Fante (1909-1983) was an Italian-American who produced a large variety of work that included short stories, novels, and screenplays. Share this reading with your students. Use the questions that follow to facilitate understanding and discussion.

Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee; blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. O Holy Mother Mary, I am now in Hollywood, California, on the corner of Franklin and Argyle, in a house where I rent a room at six a week. Remember, O Blessed Virgin, remember the night twenty years ago in Colorado when my father went to the hospital for his operation, and I got all my brothers and sisters down on the floor in our bedroom, and I said: “Now by gosh—pray! Papa’s sick, so you kids pray.” Ah, boy, we prayed, you Virgin Mary, you Honey, we prayed and my blood sang, and I felt big feelings in my chest, the ripple of electricity, the power of cold faith, and we all got up and walked to different parts of the house. I sat in the kitchen and smirked. They had said at the hospital that Papa was going to die, and nobody knew it but me and Mamma and you, you Honey, but we had prayed and I sat smirking, pooh-poohing at death because we had prayed and I knew we had done our share for Papa, and that he would live.

The rest of them wouldn’t go to bed that night, they were afraid Papa would die, and they all waited, and already Grandma planned the funeral, but I smirked and went to bed and slept very happy, with your beads in my fingers, kissing the cross a few times and then dozing off because Papa could not die after my prayers, because you were my girl, my queen, and there was no doubt in my heart.

And in the morning there was wild joy to wake me, because Papa had lived and would live some more, a lot of years to come, and there was Mamma back from the hospital, beaming and sticky when she kissed us for joy, and I heard her say to Grandma: “He lived because he has an iron constitution. He is a strong man. You can’t kill that man.” And when I heard that, I snickered. They didn’t know, these people, they didn’t know about you and me, you Honey, and I thought of your pale face, your dark hair, your feet on the serpent at the side-altar, and I said, she’s wonderful, she’s sure wonderful.

Oh, those were the days! Oh, I loved you then! You were the celestial blue, and I looked up at you when I walked to school with books under my arms, and my ecstasy was simple and smashing, crushing and mad and whirling, all these things across my chest, sensations, and you in the blue sky, in my blue shirt, in the covers of my blue-covered book. You were the color blue and I saw you everywhere and then I saw the statue in the church, at the side-altar, with your feet on the serpent, and I said and said a thousand times, I said, oh, you Honey, and I wasn’t afraid of anything. . . .

Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee; blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. O Holy Mother Mary, I want to ask a favor of you, but first I want to remind you of something I once did for you.

You will say that I am bragging again, and that you have heard this story before, but I am proud of it, and my heart is beating wildly and there is the rustle of a bird in my throat, and I could cry, and I am crying because I loved you, oh, I loved you so. That hot flash on my cheek is the course of my tears, and I flick it off with the point of my finger, and the finger comes away warm and wet, and I sit here and I am of the living, I am saying this is a dream.

His name was Willie Cox, and he went to Grover Cleveland. He was always razzing me because I was a Catholic. O you Mary! I have told you this before, I admit the braggadocio, but tonight, one day removed from Christmas Eve, I am in Hollywood, California, on the corner of Franklin and Argyle, and the rent is six a week, and I want to ask you a favor, and I cannot ask until I tell you once more about this Willie Cox.

He chewed tobacco, this Willie Cox. He went to Grover Cleveland, and he chewed tobacco, and I went to St. Catherine’s and we used to pass one another on the corner, and he used to squirt tobacco juice on my shoes and legs and say: “That for the Catholics. They stink.”

Willie Cox, where are you tonight? I am on the corner of Franklin and Argyle, and this is Hollywood, so it is quite possible that you are two blocks away, but wherever you are, Mr. Willie Cox, I call upon you to bear witness to the truth of my narrative. Willie Cox, I took a hell of a lot of your guff that spring. When you said the priests ate the nuns’ babies, and then spat on my shoes, I took it. When you said we had human sacrifices at Mass, and the priest drank the blood of young girls, and you spat across my knees, I took that. The truth is, Willie, and tonight I admit, you scared me. You were very tough, and I decided to do as the martyrs did—to do nothing. To take it.

Hail Mary, full of grace! I was a boy then, and there was no love like my love. And there was no tougher boy than Willie Cox, and I feared him. Ah, but my days were celestial blues and my eyes had only to lift and there was my love, and I was not afraid. And yet, in spite of it all, I was afraid of Willie Cox.

How is your nose today, Willie Cox? Did your front teeth grow out again? He was on his way to Grover Cleveland and I was on my way to St. Catherine’s and it was eight o’clock in the morning. He shifted the wad in his jaw, and I held my breath.

“Hi, Red Neck.”

“Hello, Willie.”

“What’s your hurry, Catholic?”

“Gotta, Willie. I’m late.”

“What’sa matter? Scared of the nunnies?”

“Don’t, Willie. You’re choking me.”

“Scared of the nunnies?”

“Don’t, Willie! I can’t hardly breathe!”

“I heard somethin’, Red Neck. My old man, he tells me you Catlickers think Jesus was borned without his mother having kids like other people have kids. Is that right?”

“It’s the Immaculate Conception. Ouch!”

“Immaculate, crap! I bet she was a whore like all Catlickers.”

“Willie Cox, you dirty dog!”

Mr. Thomas Holyoke, you are dead now, you died two years later, but even in death you may speak out tonight and tell what you saw from your window, there on the lawn, fourteen years ago one morning in the spring. You may say what you said to the policeman who ran from the courthouse steps, you may say again:

“I saw the dark lad here struggling to get free. The Cox boy was choking him. I thought he’d hurt the boy, and I was about to intervene. All at once the dark lad here swung his fist, and the Cox boy went sprawling across my new spring lawn. I thought they were playing, until I saw the Cox boy didn’t move. When I ran out his nose was bleeding and his front teeth were missing.”

Hail Mary, full of grace! Here in Hollywood, on the corner of Franklin and Argyle, I look through my window and gaze and gaze at an unending pattern of celestial blue. I wait and I remember. O you Honey, where are you now? Oh, endless blue, you have not changed!

In her room next to mine, my landlady sits before the radio. Willie Cox, I know now that you are in Hollywood. Willie Cox, you are the woman in the next room playing the radio. You have given up the vulgar habit of chewing tobacco, but, oh, Willie, you had charm in those days, and you were not nearly so monstrous as you are now, slipping little pieces of paper under my door, telling me over and over that I owe you eighteen dollars.

Hail Mary, full of grace! Today when I talked to my agent he said there was a slump in Hollywood, that the condition was serious. I went down the stairs of his office and into the big, late afternoon. Such a blue sky! Such riotous blue in the Santa Monica mountains! I looked everywhere above, and I sighed, and I said, well, it won’t rain tonight, anyway. That was this afternoon. Willie Cox, you are my landlady and you are a Slump in Hollywood.

Mary in the Sky, what has happened to me? O tall queen standing on the serpent at the side-altar, O sweet girl with waxen fingers, there is a Slump in Hollywood, my landlady slips little pieces of paper under my door, and when I gaze at the sky it is to form an opinion about the weather. This is funny. It is probably goddamn funny to the world and it is funny to me, but this gathering dust in my throat, this quiet in my chest where once there was whirling, this cigarette-clenching mouth that once bore a smirk of faith and joy in destiny—there is no laughter in these things. Willie Cox has got me by the throat again.

Willie Cox, I am not afraid of you. I know that I cannot bloody the nose of a Slump in Hollywood or knock the teeth out of my landlady’s mouth, but, Willie Cox, remember that I still look to the sky. Remember that there are nights like these when I pause to listen, to search, to feel, to grope.

Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee, and blessed art thou among women. Holy Mary, Mother of God, I was going to ask a favor, I was going to ask boldly about that rent. I see it is not necessary now. I see that you have not deserted me. For in a little while I shall slip this into an envelope and send it off. There is a Slump in Hollywood, and my landlady slips little pieces of paper under my door, and once more I sit in the kitchen of my world, a smirk on my lips.

Reading for Comprehension

1.   For whom did the family pray at the beginning of the story?

2.   How does Willie Cox harass the boy?

3.   What blasphemy does Willie Cox state in his insults against the Blessed Virgin Mary?

4.   What does the narrator do to Willie Cox?

5.   What is the current status of the narrator?

6.   Why does the narrator feel no need to pray to the Blessed Virgin for the money to pay his rent?


Reading for Understanding

1.   Who was Willie Cox when the narrator was a boy? Who is Willie Cox for the narrator now?

2.   What color does the narrator associate with the Blessed Virgin? Describe three places he sees this color.

3.   Why does the narrator have a smirk on his lips at the end of the story?

4.   What are your feelings about the familiar way the narrator continually addresses the Blessed Virgin by the name, “Honey?”

Exercise

  •  Write your own free-flowing "stream of consciousness" prayer in honor of Mary, the Mother of God, and her month of May.

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