#497: The White Stripes, "White Blood Cells" (2001)

He drives the tour van and she puts her dirty feet on the dashboard, leaving a mark. She paints her toes white while the road rolls under, because it’s a preapproved contribution to the color scheme. They always bring plenty of pillows; sleeping happens in shifts. Whoever’s driving gets to pick the music.

It’s cramped quarters. But most days the closest she feels to him is when he’s at the microphone, she’s on the other side of the stage calmly beating the bejesus out of the drums.

When they’re parked, they play a French automobile-themed card game from the 60s called Milles Bornes. It’s all about traveling more miles than the other player. When he gets going fast she can give him a speed limit. When she gets too close to winning he deals her a stoplight, a flat tire, a car crash.

What a season, he sings every night at the encore, to be beautiful without a reason.

She drives the van and he writes another song and she wants to tell him it’s not brilliant but it is.

Some days she feels like a wind-up toy he’s ratcheted too many revolutions. He told her they’d never make it big, not really, but she should have known better than that. She’s an industrial machine he equipped with a kill switch, programmed to drum for endless days but not to drum too good.

What he says he’s always liked most about her playing is its lack of polish.

Lately people want to know, does he keep her quiet? Always been a lot of questions, which is how he likes it. Do they love each other like brother and sister, husband and wife, do they love each other at all? Of all the things he’s ever stood for in his life, silence has never been one of them. If you can hear a piano fall you can hear him coming down the hall.

Does he keep her from talking? She’d say he has nothing to do with it.

When they first met, he told her about a car fire he saw as a child in Mexicantown, how he woke up and sensed the flames without even opening his eyes, how he leapt out of bed and spotted it through the window, roaring tongues coming up through the sunroof and reaching almost to the moon, the cardboard sign in front that said, NOW, COME PICK UP YOUR TRASH.

She laughed and asked do I need to worry about you embellishing?

Yes, he said, raising his eyebrows. Yes.

When they married, he took her name and made it his own. Who’d want to worship a guy named John Gillis, anyway?

When they divorced, he never considered giving it back.

Some days all he can talk about are saints. St. James, St. Sebastian, and of course St. Rita, the one for impossible cases.

They tend to perform staring directly into each other’s eyes. Often, for the encore they play “We’re Going to be Friends.” To introduce it he leans way down near the first row and whispers kids are just so cruel to each other. It’s nice to fantasize that they’re not. It’s a cliché, but a cliché that fits too nicely to ignore, she thinks: he holds the audience right in the palm of his pale hand.

Good lord, the shit that she mumbles when he’s trying to sing, the things that he crows when the camera’s rolling.

He does yet another interview, though he claims to hate them: Quiet people … Randy Newman said shortpeople got no reason to live? Shit. He musta never met a quiet person.

When he was a furniture upholsterer, he said he didn’t even want to be famous, but couldn’t seem to help acting like it. He made those business cards that said Your Furniture’s Not Dead, wrote his receipts out in crayon, sewed handwritten notes into the insides of the sectionals he refurbished for the old ladies to find one day and say what in heaven’s name is the meaning of this? He drove all over town in the black and yellow van, wearing his black and yellow suits. And though not many people wanted him to fix their leather chairs, they knew who he was. They wondered about him.

It’s all these things that people need to know but are also desperate to avoid learning: that he wore braces and she talked with a lisp, that he met her tending bar at Memphis Smoke because she decided she was done with all the bullshit after high school. That he wasn’t born until his mother was already forty-five, all these little details that don’t look so good on gods.

His brother is a lawyer, his other brother is a chef. One brother is only an ophthalmologist.

They play a concert in Ontario that’s nothing more than a single E-flat chord sustained for five minutes, and then the crowd chants one more note, one more note, having no idea that might be all that’s left within them.

They are beginning to be extremely famous now. They crash on their friends’ couches for the last time. She makes her grandmama’s corn soufflé and he holds court, lecturing on the one and only way to make a chocolate malt correctly (hint: vanilla ice cream). In the mornings they fold the blankets nice and neat and leave them on the couch. Not like a chore, but because they know they should, because it’s a nice, right thing to do.

Soon it will all be champagne and air-conditioning, neither one of them at the wheel.

His house is filled with dead things he can’t let go of. Just like the furniture business, that obsession with preservation and repair. He collects refurbished animals. An eland, a kudu, a giant white elk, a zebra head, a gazelle. All taxidermied up and hung like paintings. Sometimes they take pictures with them for their album covers now. He keeps a crow in a Ziplock bag in the freezer because it’s illegal to stuff but too beautiful to throw away. She thinks it’s a little awful to keep something on display like that after it’s only a husk with flat eyes, cold and milky.

Does it feel good to fill the air with something incredible? Even now they would both say yes. When the spotlights blast and the feedback skreeks and some drunk spills his beer, screaming, I want to have your babies, they have their loneliest and loveliest moment of the whole day.

In the dressing room before a show, they don’t ask for much. Just some fresh strawberries and a tray with biscuits and tea, then they play AC/DC. He sits at the mirror, summoning something up. When a journalist knocks he turns him away, shaming him, saying it’s like asking Michelangelo about his shoes. He knows there will be plenty more of them to listen when he wants to talk again. When the record ends, she stretches out on the couch and hums her harmony for “Hotel Yorba” and he says sing out. He says nobody can ever hear you.

Quiet people can be confusing. She knows that. But maybe the world needs people of all volumes, jabbering over and under one another. It was a lot more fun doing this back when the chaos of his guitar solos still felt like a kiss. She never even wanted to play the drums, just loved his fingertips on her elbows as he taught her how.

Illustration by Lena Moses-Schmitt

Illustration by Lena Moses-Schmitt

She looks so goddamn good up there, though. He somehow manages to yowl like a stepped-on cat but make it a stunning melody. He stalks and stomps around and she pounds like a demon and they make something magic out of their tender turmoil, these confusing moods. It’s a lack of control that’s pitch perfect on stage, a little unwieldy everywhere else. But sometimes they sound so good up there and she looks so good and they look so good together.

If they stop and be quiet, three thousand strangers pull the words out from within them: any man with a microphone can tell you what he loves the most.

But then the show’s over. The electricity sizzles itself out and even his guitar and even him—spent and still.But now. But now. They’re the words they ended their third album with. He ended it with, she means. She just sang.

She drives the van and he plays with Lego people in the passenger seat. Raises their arms, bends them over, sits them down, has them hold hands, pops their little heads off. She wants to cry sometimes, but worries if she does he will hold her and it will be the last scene, the pose they’re stuck in as the credits start rolling.

—Eric Thompson