Maggie Wolff Peterson: Funk Night

marathonlitreview —  February 8, 2012 — Leave a comment

Funk Night

Something hurt Ellen all the time. No one lives past 50 without that. Her feet were going to throb the second she lifted herself from bed and put them on the floor. It was as if the soft tissues that held together her arches, heel and toes awakened with the pressure of her standing, to protest five decades of dancing barefoot on the kitchen floor.

And walking barefoot on beach sand, and all the myriad other unsupported applications of their muscles, joints and tendons. All the things a young woman does without thinking, enjoying the sensual pleasure of toes in the sand and bare feet on a cool wood floor.

Still, she danced, goddammit. The funk music, with its deep, plucky bass lines, made her move across the kitchen floor as she started her morning coffee. She had the kitchen to herself, and alone, she closed her eyes and became younger — tireless and capable. On the miniaturized turntable of a CD player she’d put digitized versions of the her old vinyl, and anticipated the downbeats.

Hips, thighs, ankles. Ellen’s muscles and ligaments warmed to the sound, and her body  became expressive and free. This for Ellen was the essence of her younger self. Dancing was who she was. She remembered herself in the campus pub with its sticky floor and yeasty air.

Tuesday night was funk night, and all the black kids came out to dance. There were dual turntables spinning Earth Wind and Fire and the Commodores. The white kids were moving into disco, which to Ellen took the soul and slide of black music and turned it angular and quick. Disco turned the moves that were natural into dance steps that had to be learned. Ellen had no interest in the downtown clubs with mirror balls. She wasn’t like the other girls who rolled their hair into fat waves beside their faces before going out to dance.

Besides, Jimmy was part of funk night. Ellen’s skin was pink as a peach and freckled in the sun. But she belonged at funk night because of Jimmy.

Besides, Jimmy had his own freckles, courtesy of a redheaded Scots-Irish mother. Back in the day, Jimmy’s parents had to cross state lines to marry, and stay there, too, else the Sheriff come after them. After 34 years, they were still married, Jimmy’s mother now a shortened, whitehaired version of herself.

His father’s wide nose and licorice skin translated into more aquiline features on Jimmy, whose cocoa hair was softer and less kinked than the other black boys’. No matter. At school, Jimmy was black, and on funk night he came out to dance. And he belonged to Ellen.

Jiminy. That’s what she called him. Like the cricket. No reason, really, except that the name was fun to say, and Ellen expected Jimmy to be wise. She imagined them to be the most special couple on campus. They were breaking forward, moving ahead. Ellen would never be accepted by the black girls who narrowed their eyes at Jimmy for picking her instead of one of them. She was capable of accepting that.

But to Jimmy, their censure was a version of what his own parents had overcome. It always came down to black and white, the mixing of races that was never really accomplished, no matter how much legislation claimed progress and people pushed the boundaries. The black kids occupied tables in the cafeteria that didn’t have to be officially segregated to be understood as theirs. They traveled together across campus. They had their music. They had funk night.

But Jimmy respected that Ellen was brave and individual. He appreciated her special name for him, and knew that a pet name from Ellen signaled solidarity as a couple. He wanted to belong, and he could belong to her. Light skin on a woman was familiar for him.

People still looked at them askance when they ventured from campus for a walk in town. The light black boy and the strawberry blonde being together wouldn’t provoke the law, not anymore. But that didn’t mean that someone might throw a beating Jimmy’s way or hurl epithets at Ellen for being a nigger lover. Even after having been schooled by his parents’ example, Jimmy chafed against the gazes that lingered too long as people passed him and Ellen on the street. Innocent surprise, stony discomfort or even clucking disapproval from bystanders read to Jimmy as possible threat. Ellen walked right past it, but Jimmy didn’t want to provoke anyone. His parents took a road far harder than he wanted to tread.

The drugstore man gave a penetrating look over his half-glasses when the two of them sat side-by-side at the counter to order sodas.

“Yes, miss,” he directed his query at Ellen.

“We’ll have sodas,” she responded, her tone even and firm. A counter man was not going to intimidate Ellen on a date with her Jiminy. “We’ll each have chocolate sodas.”

“Ellen, we don’t have to do this,” Jimmy said. The counter man hesitated.

“We don’t have to do anything,” she said. “We never have to. I want to do this. Two chocolate sodas, please.”

Jimmy might as well have been drinking carbonated floor cleaner, for as little pleasure as he found in the soda. But Ellen pulled at her straw with satisfaction, enjoying the drink and the setting, and being with Jimmy. Beyond the campus was the wide world, and there were no legal barriers to stop herself and Jimmy from loving each other in it. That was enough for Ellen; she believed that the power of their romance would carry them across chasms of ignorance and inexperience. She believed in herself with Jimmy. She believed they could make their way among people.

While the counter man swiped a wet rag on his stainless-steel fixtures, Ellen and Jimmy constructed a bubble of personal space occupied by just themselves. It was just them, together. Ellen meant to shut out disapproval and just be in the world with Jimmy.

“Jiminy,” she said. He shook his head.

Jimmy wanted to go back to campus. He wanted to be where he and Ellen were a known couple and pushing the boundaries was what students were supposed to do. As rebellion, theirs was mild, but visible enough to be significant. Jimmy would rather just take Ellen dancing in the campus pub than try to make a date in town.

“Do you want me to come to church with you tomorrow?” Ellen asked, knowing that Bertie and James were visiting. Jimmy’s parents. Bertie would want to go to Mass. Jimmy suffered a fresh wave of anxiety. Bertie and James had not met Ellen, and did not know that Jimmy was dating a white girl.

“Sure, come,” Jimmy said. “We’ll be at 9:30 Mass.”

Ellen selected a floaty gypsy skirt and peasant blouse for church. She had a plain A-line skirt in navy blue and a white blouse with a Peter Pan collar, that her mother had selected as Ellen’s “good outfit,” but those clothes did not speak of Ellen’s nature. They stayed in her closet, on the narrow wire hanger and protective plastic from the dry cleaner’s. She felt fine walking across campus to the chapel, to meet Jimmy and his folks.

However Jimmy had prepared his parents to meet Ellen was unknown to her. Jimmy betrayed his tension in a small smile and rigid body language, as he introduced Ellen to Bertie and James.

“Hello, dear,” Bertie responded, and James extended a large hand to shake hers. If Jimmy’s parents were uncomfortable, they didn’t show it. It seemed that only Jimmy suffered.

After the hour’s religious service and some small talk, Jimmy left to walk his parents to their car. Ellen sat on the concrete steps outside her dormitory to wait. She felt the hard, cold stone beneath her thighs, through the thin peasant skirt. She wrapped the light skirt around her knees and hugged them.

“Jiminy, you are as white as you are black,” Ellen scolded later.

“I’m not,” he said. “You have no idea.”

“I saw your mother. I know you.”

“You don’t know,” Jimmy said.

Two nights later, funk night again. Ellen put on platform shoes. She shrugged into her slickest nylon blouse, and left her hair long and straight. She waited for Jimmy, and at the pub, they danced. First, some Rick James, then Bootsy Collins provided the bass drive for the Parliament Funkadelics. Ellen and Jimmy remained on the dance floor as one groove slid into the next. They moved together, hips, thighs, feet. Finally, damp with sweat, they stepped out a back door to cool off in the November night.

Ellen expected Jimmy to kiss her. He didn’t. He seemed unhappy, preoccupied.

“Ellen, I can’t do this. I love you but I can’t,” he said.

“What are you talking about?”

“I can’t be with you, Ellen.”


“No, Ellen. I watched my parents push uphill their whole lives and I don’t want to do it. People look at me and see black. They look at you and see white.”

“This is stupid,” Ellen said. “You’re my Jiminy.”

Jimmy swiped his hand across his forehead and pushed his fingertips against his eyes. He shook his head. Softly, he placed the flat of his palm against the small of Ellen’s back and guided her away from the back door. He took her home.

They didn’t dance the following Tuesday night. Ellen went alone to the campus pub and the funk played. But Jimmy hadn’t called and wasn’t there and she felt conspicuous without him. Nobody asked her to the dance floor. She didn’t go back the next Tuesday.

She kept to herself. She went to class. She studied and graduated. She met a nice law student named Keith who was as white as she. She introduced him to her parents.            Keith was graceless on the dance floor. On their wedding day, she assured him that nobody cared. Ellen encouraged her new husband through the wedding couple’s customary first dance.

“They only look at the bride,” she said.

Twenty five years passed. Ellen and Keith made an enduring marriage. They had their shared interests, and they created and raised two girls. But Keith never thought to take Ellen dancing, and Ellen did not encourage it. Dancing was hers, privately.

Alone and barefoot on the kitchen floor, Ellen hit her groove. Motown, James Brown, Kool and the Gang. For herself, she danced.

On a Tuesday afternoon in April, with the sun working to warm the fresh earth, Ellen pulled her mail from the box. Six times a year, the Collegiate arrived. Her college magazine. James Richardson, it said, had died. It was just his name, listed at the back of the magazine in an In Memoriam column, next to the year of their graduation. Jimmy’s name in a column of names of the deceased. Black print on white paper. Jiminy.

Ellen went into the house, the color and warmth instantly gone from the day. In the back of a closet, under the extra blankets, was a box. “Ellen’s College Things,” she had written in permanent black marker, before she married Keith.

Ellen sat on the floor with the box and opened it. On top, a blue and gold graduation tassel with a plastic gold adornment: ’78. Some old term papers that Ellen had thought were good, with uneven lettering from the manual typewriter on which they were finished. A sash from a fraternity pageant that Ellen had been talked into. The event hadn’t matched her personality, but after Jimmy, Ellen was untethered. She let some girls talk her into going. And truth be told, it had been more fun that Ellen expected it to be. So she saved the sash.

Under it was Ellen’s student directory. All the kids in her class, with their photos and hometown addresses, prepared in advance of freshman year. It was supposed to help the freshmen get to know each other. Instead, the upperclass boys used the directories to target girls to date.

At a freshman mixer, before she met a single upperclassman, Ellen met Jimmy. Together, they navigated the early days of freshman year. Now his name was on a list of the deceased.

In the directory, Ellen found his name beside an address and phone number. Ten digits on the telephone, an out-of-town area code and seven numbers more. What was the chance?

One ring, two, three.


“Hello, I’m looking for Mrs. Richardson,” Ellen said.

“This is she.” A distant voice. Bertie.

“Mrs. Richardson, this is an old friend of Jimmy’s from college,” Ellen said. “Ellen… Daley. It’s Ellen Withers now.”

“Hello, dear.” That same tone of voice that Ellen remembered. Did Bertie remember her? Ellen couldn’t tell.

“Mrs. Richardson, I just got the Collegiate. I saw Jimmy’s name.”

“Yes,” Bertie said.

“I’m so sorry.” Ellen weighed whether to ask what had happened.

“Thank you, dear. It wasn’t completely unexpected. But the two little boys,” Bertie said. Ellen was confused. Two children killed? Along with Jimmy?

“Raymond and James,” Bertie said. “They’re fourteen and twelve. Not so little, I guess.”

“Oh, my goodness,” Ellen said. She hesitated. “Was there an accident?”

A pause. “No, dear. Not exactly. James took his life.”

“Oh, my God.” James. Jimmy. Jiminy.

Bertie continued. He was survived by his children and a wife, Daeshawn. It had been almost three months.

Daeshawn had made sure to send a death notice to the Collegiate, Bertie said. The family was adjusting.

“I’m so sorry,” Ellen said.

“Thank you for calling, dear,” Bertie said. Ellen could only imagine what kind of grandmother she was, what kind of mother-in-law for Jimmy’s wife. She could only imagine Jimmy’s life, with a wife and children who depended on him, and a personal confusion that he never overcame. Ellen shut the directory, refilled and closed her college box. She reassembled the storage closet and closed its door.

She went to the kitchen and poured a glass of wine, and was just a little toasted with Keith got home at suppertime with Erin, their younger girl. Father and daughter were dressed alike, in striped shirts and dark shorts from the youth soccer league for which Erin played and Keith coached. They each dropped their cleats at the door.

“Honey, do you want to go grab some burgers,” Keith asked. “Erin is starving.”

“Oh, honey,” Ellen said. She moved towards him for a hug.

“What’s going on?” he asked. She slid into his embrace. Keith was solid and warm, and his soccer shirt smelled of his body and the laundry detergent that Ellen used.

“What happened?” Keith asked.

“Someone died,” Ellen said. “Someone I went to school with. My college magazine came today.”

“I’m sorry, honey,” Keith said. “Was it someone important?”

“Just someone I used to know,” Ellen said. “A friend from freshman year.” Ellen lifted her cheek from his chest and released him. She wiped her eyes and nose. “We don’t need to go out,” she said. “I’ll get dinner on.”

Keith retreated to the bedroom to change clothes. As he was putting on his worn flannel shirt and blue jeans, Ellen selected music. Earth Wind and Fire, “September.”

First, the hiss of the disc spinning in the player, a moment of anticipation before the digital information became music. Then the beat.

“Do you remember….,” Maurice White, singing. Ellen was barefoot on the kitchen floor. She shifted her weight into her hips. Her feet started to move.

They hurt. She danced.


Maggie Wolff Peterson lives in Winchester, Virginia.

No responses to Maggie Wolff Peterson: Funk Night

  1. Congratulations. This is wonderful.

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