The Bonus Merchant

It’s Fiction Friday! When I was in college, I actually earned two degrees – one in English and one in Creative Writing. I needed the English degree so I could teach, so it’s the degree that is hanging on my wall, but I was most interested in writing and was going to school on a Creative Writing Scholarship, so I took all the classes to complete the Creative Writing program as well. This story is one that I wrote my junior year of college. I was studying African American Literature that semester and loved the writing of Zora Neale Hurston and how she used dialect, so I was inspired to write this story.

I was able to go present this story at the Mississippi Philological Association meeting at Mississippi State University in 2014, and it won first place in my campus writing competition and was published in our literary journal, The Dillitanti. Of the stories I have written, this is one of my favorites. I hope you enjoy it!

The Bonus Merchant

It all started when the phone rang on Friday morning.  “Ivie Bridges?”  The voice that said her name was familiar, but she couldn’t quite place it.

“Yessuh?”

“Good morning, ma’am,” the voice boomed over the line.  “Do you know the Bonus Merchant?”  It was the local radio announcer, calling as part of his weekly show.  If Miss Ivie had taken a minute to think about it, to realize who he was and why he was calling, she would have cheerily announced that the Bonus Merchant was Turner’s Grocery and she would have won forty dollars.

But Miss Ivie didn’t have time to think, so she just said, “Naw, Ah knows lots a Merchants, but Ah don’t believe Ah knows a Mistah Bonus.”  The radio announcer laughed so hard that he accidentally hung up on her.  Ivie just shrugged, dropped the phone onto its receiver and went back to her chores.

James Reed was lying on the floor of his mother’s kitchen, fixing the drain on her sink, when he heard it.  He chuckled to himself and shook his head.  “Mister Bonus,” he said with a grin.  “That’s funny.”

On Saturday, her name was on everyone’s lips as they opened up their storefronts and the farmers came into town to buy their weekly supplies.  The old men who spit and tell lies on the porch of the Courthouse slapped their knees as they told it over and over.  Even the kids were talking about it as they rode the loop and sat on the tailgates of their trucks in the high school parking lot that night.

By Sunday, everyone in the county knew the name Ivie Bridges, and on Monday morning, the owner of the newspaper himself walked up the beaten down dirt path in Ivie’s front yard and knocked on her door.

Miss Ivie peeked through the curtains on the kitchen window and saw the man standing on her porch in a stiff-collared cream-colored shirt, starched grey pants, and shiny black shoes.  He was tall and skinny, with wavy brown hair and freckles sprinkled across his boyish face.  “Lawd,” she muttered under her breath, “he must done be at da wrong house.”  She pulled her hands from the dishwater and wiped them on her apron.

“Mizz Ivie.”  Miss Ivie turned around and saw eight year old Parris Harris, her neighbor’s granddaughter, standing in the doorway between the kitchen and the den with her bare feet spread wide and her hands planted firmly on her hips.  “Dey’s a man at da do’ fo’ you.”

Miss Ivie had been up since her neighbor’s rooster crowed at a quarter till five, but she was still wearing her slippers and had a scarf tied around her hair.  She patted her damp brown fingers over the scarf and pulled its knot tight.  “Ah’m a cummin’,” she said.

“What dat man doin’ out heah?” Parris asked, crossing her arms over her purple t-shirt.  “Mama done said dat if da man from da carlot come ‘round, we ain’t supposed to tell him nuttin.”

“Hush, child,” Miss Ivie said.  “Git on outside and play wit yo’ friends.”

Parris raised her chin in defiance after being dismissed, but when her eyes met Miss Ivie’s she reconsidered, dropped her chin, and lowered her eyes to the floor.  “Yessum.”

When Miss Ivie walked into the den, the man waved through the screen door.  The kids had flung the wood door open wide, but hadn’t invited him in, and he was still out on the porch.  “Miss Ivie Bridges?”

“Yessuh?”  Miss Ivie tugged the door open a little ways, but didn’t step aside to allow the stranger inside.

“I’m James Reed,” he said, holding his hand out to Miss Ivie.

She shook it, but still stood in the doorway.  “Yessuh,” she said.  “You write fo’ da paper.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“I done paid my bill, Mistah Reed.”

“Yes, I know.  That’s not why I’m here.”

Miss Ivie’s large eyes rounded.  “Den why is you heah?  Dis a good ways from where you stays up on dat hill outside town.”

“I want to interview you,” James said, pulling a little spiral notebook and a pencil from his shirt pocket.  “For the newspaper.”

She laughed.  “Interview me?” she asked.  “What fo’?”

“Well, I just wanted to talk to you,” James said, “and I thought I would write about you as the Person of the Week.”

“Person of da Week?” Miss Ivie asked.  She shook her head.  “Dere ain’t nobody wants to read ‘bout me.”

“I think they will.  You’re a pretty popular person around town lately.”

“You mean dere’s a a buncha folks laughin’ ‘bout me in town, right, Mistah Reed?” Miss Ivie asked.  “Ah know dey’s a laughin’.  But Ah don’t care.  Dey can laugh if’n dey feel like it.  Guess it’s good ta have somethin’ to laugh about.”

“So you did it as a joke?”

“Twatt’n no joke, Mistah Reed.  Ah’s jest busy, what wit all dees kids ‘round.  And Ah’s jest watt’n thinkin’ straight.  Ah didn’t know dat wuz da man from da radio, or’s Ah woulda fo’ sho told him dat Turner’s Grocery wuz da Bonus Merchant las’ week.  Dat pot o’money wuz nearly forty dollas.  I sho woulda took dat money if’n Ah hadn’t been so busy.”

James looked around at the group of kids playing in Ivie’s yard.  “You keep these kids every day?” he asked.

“Sho do,” Miss Ivie said, standing up straighter and smiling.  “’Specially in da summers.  During school too, sometimes, if’n one of ‘em is sick or somethin’.”

“So you run a daycare?”  James counted seven kids in the front yard and three little ones on the den floor behind Miss Ivie.

“Naw, Ah don’t know nothin’ ‘bout dat,” she said.  “Ah jest keep watch over ‘em while dey mamas is at work.  Ah don’t really keep ‘em, jest watch after ‘em a bit.”  She looked over at the clock on the kitchen wall and started to push the door closed.  “’Cuse me, Mistah Reed, but Ah’s got ta git ta cookin’ dinner, or’s dem kids gone be thinkin’ dey’s dyin’ a hunger pains soon.  Sorry, now, but dey ain’t no story fo’ yo’ paper ‘round heah.”

“Wait,” James said, stepping closer to the door.  “Could I come in and talk to you while you cook?  I won’t get in the way, I promise.”

Miss Ivie rolled her eyes towards Heaven and shook her head.  “Ah reckon so,” she said.  “Might as well stay fo’ dinner, too.”

James shook his head.  “That won’t be necessary,” he said.  “I don’t mean to be any trouble.”

“Tain’t no trouble,” Miss Ivie said.  “One mo’ ain’t never gone make no difference, da way Ah cook.  ‘Specially one as skinny as you.”  She opened the screen door for James and he followed her into the kitchen.  She had wide shoulders and hips, and she shuffled her feet when she walked.  “You’ll have ta ‘cuse da mess,” she said, even though the little house was spotlessly clean.  “Ah hadn’t done my moppin’ yet.”  She pulled a chair out from under a little round table by the stove that was covered with a red and white checkered tablecloth and patted the top back rung.  “Have a seat, Mistah Reed.”

“Thank you.”  James sat down and flipped open his notebook.

“Ah read yo’ paper ever week,” Miss Ivie said.  “Ah ‘specially like da stories yo’ Mama write ‘bout da Bible.”

James smiled.  “Thank you,” he said.  “I’ll tell Mama that.  She’ll be tickled.”

“Ah used ta work wit yo’ Mama,” she said.  “She a real nice lady.”

“Yes, she is.”  James watched Miss Ivie put a large black skillet on the stove and turn on the gas burner.  She plopped a big scoop of Crisco into the skillet.

“You like fried chicken, Mistah Reed?” she asked.

“Yes, ma’am.”

Miss Ivie smiled.  “Ah make da best fried chicken yo’ ever gone put in yo’ mouth,” she said.  “Ah don’t like ta brag on myself, but Ah’s proud a my chicken.”  She took a bowl of chicken out of the refrigerator and set it on the counter, then pulled a large brown paper grocery sack out of a drawer by the stove.  “Yo’ Mama used ta cook some good rolls when she worked at da school wit me,” Miss Ivie said.  “Ah ‘member how all da kids would come in da lunch room jest a sniffin’ ‘cause dey smelled ‘em cookin’.”

James watched her dump some flour into the grocery sack.  She tossed in a pinch of salt, a few shakes of pepper, and a generous dash of cayenne pepper into the bag before she placed the chicken down into it.  “Have you always liked to cook?” James asked.

“Oh, yessuh,” Miss Ivie said.  “Ever since Ah was high-tall,” she said, motioning about knee-high.  “Ah’d climb up on da stool in my Mama’s kitchen an’ do whatever she did.  Could cook by myself by da time Ah’s sebem or eight.”  She folded the top of the bag over a few times and gave it a good shake.  “Den Ah gots da job at da school, cookin fo’ da school kids.”

She dropped the first few pieces of chicken into the grease and they bubbled and popped and hissed.  James grinned when he saw some little faces peering in the screen door behind Miss Ivie.  One of the boys, the littlest one, pressed his nose to the screen, closed his eyes, and took a deep breath.

Miss Ivie saw them, too, and she winked at James.  “Whatchu doin’ leanin’ on my screen do’ like dat?” she said, turning around and shaking a wooden spoon towards the door.  The kids jumped, but then Miss Ivie smiled and they laughed and ran back into the yard.  “Dem two little ‘ens is mines,” Ivie said.

“Your children?”

“Naw,” Miss Ivie rolled her eyes at James and shook the spoon in his direction.  “Ah’s too old fo’ dat,” she said.  “Dey’s my grandchillen.  But dey stays wit me.”  She lifted a lid off a large pot of what smelled like turnip greens and stirred them with one hand while she flipped chicken with the other.  “Dey Mama’s in Memphis bookooing around, tryin’ ta be a singer or somethin’,” she said.  “But dey Daddy’s got hisself a real good job up in Detroit, buildin’ cars.”  She nodded towards a framed picture hanging on the wall by the refrigerator.  “Dat’s him, dere,” she said.  “His name James, like yours.”  She smiled.  “He been savin’ his money, and he say he gone bring a car a his own down heah when he come at Christmas.”

“That’s great,” James said.  “What kind is he going to get?”

Miss Ivie shrugged.  “Ah told him to jest pick him out a nice one,” she said.  “It’ll be a sight when he pulls up in his very own car.”  She lowered her voice a little and grinned.  “Ah can’t wait ta see Patrice Riley’s face when my boy comes up in his own car.”

“Who’s that?”

“My neighbor ‘cross da road,” she said.  “She act right top-superior, like she better dan da rest of us ‘cause her son went to college an all.”  Miss Ivie shook her head.  “Don’t git me wrong,” she said, “Ah’s right proud a Eddie, but his Mama… whew.”  She shook her head.  “But dat’s a story fo’ another day.”

She pulled the first pieces of chicken out of the grease and dropped in the rest.  “You ain’t serious ‘bout puttin’ me in da paper, is you, Mistah Reed?” she asked.

“I am,” James said.  “I think people would like to read about you and your cooking and how you watch these kids in the summers.”

Miss Ivie wiped her wide hands on her apron.  “Ah really didn’t mean ta say what Ah did, Mistah Reed.  Ah’s just so busy, what wit da kids and gittin dinner fixed, dat I just plumb didn’t think about what Ah was sayin’.”  She gingerly lifted a piece of chicken to check how brown it was getting, shook her head and dropped it back down into the bubbling grease.  “Ah knew dat voice was familiar, but Ah jest couldn’t place it.  An’ when he ask about da Bonus Merchant, dat jest wadn’t what was on my mind.  You know, we still gots da party-line on dis side a town, an Ah guess Ah jest thought he was lookin’ for da Merchants what live down da road.  Ah jest said it and had already hung up an’ was going ‘bout my chores again when Ah saw Patrice Riley cumin up da road a cacklin’ like a hen.  Nex’ thing Ah know, everybody was askin’ me if’n Ah knew a Mistah Bonus.”  She flipped her chicken over and rested her hand on her hip.  “Like Ah said befo’, if’n folks wanna laugh, Ah guess dey can jest go on an’ laugh.”  She let a hearty laugh out, as if to make her point.  “It is kinda funny,” she admitted.  “But Ah sho wish Ah’d got dat forty dollas.”

“What would you have done with the money?” James asked.

Miss Ivie pursed her lips and her big eyes rounded, then she shook her head and laughed.  “Don’t matter,” she said.  “Tain’t never gone happen, no how.”

“What?”

“Well, Mistah Reed,” she said, “Ah really want ta open me up a restaurant.  Ah think Ah’d be real good at it, an’ like Ah said, Ah cook da best chicken yo’ ever put in yo’ mouth.”

“That sounds like a great idea,” James said.

Miss Ivie shrugged.  “Jest an old woman a dreamin’,” she said.  “Don’t pay dat no never mind.”  She took the last of the chicken out of the grease and stacked in on a platter.  James helped her carry all her bowls and dishes out to the backyard to the two picnic tables under the big oak tree on the edge of her yard.  She put two fingers in her mouth and whistled.  “Come on!” she yelled.

Kids appeared from all directions.  Each came up to Miss Ivie with their palms out and she checked their hands before she handed them their plates.  A few of them got dirty looks and instructions to “git yo’self washed up ‘fore you come up heah fo’ yo’ dinner.”  James sat with the kids and ate some of the best fried chicken he’d ever put in his mouth.

Parris Harris sat beside him, swinging her bare feet over the firmly packed dirt that covered the back yard.  “You gonna write ‘bout Mizz Ivie, huh?” she asked.

“Yes.”

“Whatchu gone say ‘bout her?”

James shrugged.  “I don’t know yet.”

He helped Miss Ivie carry all the dishes back to the house, but she waved him away from the sink.  “Yo’ Mama’ll never fo’give me if’n Ah let you git dat pretty shirt stained,” she said.

“Miss Ivie, are you going to let me write about you for the Person of the Week article?” he asked.

She shrugged.  “It’s yo’ paper,” she said.

“But I don’t want to write about you without your permission.”  Miss Ivie shrugged again and chewed on her lip while she washed the dishes.  “Just think about what Miss Riley will say when she sees the paper,” James said.

“She’ll keel over dead,” she said with a chuckle.

“Plus, the Person of the Week gets forty dollars,” James said.

“Really?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

The article appeared in that Wednesday’s paper.  James wrote about Miss Ivie’s cooking and how she took care of all the neighborhood kids during the summers.  He talked about how she loved to read his mother’s weekly Bible study column.  He bragged for two paragraphs about how good Miss Ivie’s chicken tasted.  And he ended his article by saying that, although Miss Ivie didn’t know Mister Bonus, Mister Bonus (whoever he was) would be proud to know her.

A framed copy of the article hangs on the wall by the cash register at Ivie’s Place, its edges starting to yellow and the print beginning to fade.  People drive for miles just to taste Miss Ivie’s fried chicken.  She doesn’t cook much anymore, but she sits on a stool by that register and greets every customer who comes in.  Last week, Ivie’s Place was the Bonus Merchant for the local radio station.  I was sitting at my usual booth when Mister Reed came in for his plate of fried chicken and turnip greens.  His hair is streaked with grey now, and weekly helpings of Miss Ivie’s fried chicken and turnip greens have put a little weight on him, but he still has freckles splashed across a young, boyish face.  Mister Reed walked around the counter and hugged Miss Ivie.  “Miss Ivie Bridges, do you know the Bonus Merchant?” he asked with a wide grin.

“Naw,” Miss Ivie said, tossing her head back and letting out a hearty laugh.  “Ah don’t know no Mistah Bonus.”

*Note – The African American dialect used in this story is in no way meant to be disrespectful or demeaning.  The style of this story was inspired by the writing style of African American author, Zora Neale Hurston.  She often used dialect in her stories to show how African Americans really spoke.  That was the intention here – to tell a real-sounding story.  I referenced Hurston’s “Characteristics of Negro Expression” to develop the dialect for Miss Ivie’s character.

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