The Singular Talent of Nisqually Joe

"Lean and masterful prose. Buy this book."—Wayne Allen Sallee, author of The Holy Terror and Proactive Contrition

Hear my reading of "Nisqually Joe," as well as John Bruni's "Virtuoso," in episode 23 of The Bare Knuckle Podcast.


Tracee hated her surroundings. The constant ugliness of the world is what drove her to paint. Thoughts of war and corruption, crime and debauchery, dominated her mind, but what ended up on the canvas was always flowers in rich bloom, wildlife atwitter with the onset of spring or humanity in rapport with itself and its setting. Tracee longed to capture the plunging drop-offs of her psyche in paints, the tenebrous fens that hid themselves from her prying creativity. She was an artist. A damn good one. She just couldn’t prevent her wintry moods and destructive passions from translating into benignity itself before emerging from the colors she splashed onto her canvas with such ferocious haste.
This morning she only stared at the incomplete creation on her easel. Brad was snoring away upstairs, as she should have been at such an hour. No light came in through the windows of her spacious art-loft apartment. The sun wouldn’t rouse itself for hours. Instead she relied on the dim orange glow from overhead track lighting to make sense of her latest work. She sat cross-legged on a stool before the canvas, men’s pajamas hanging loosely on her sweat-skimmed body as she ran both hands through her hair. She’d drawn a rough outline of the scene while in the middle of a field in eastern Washington and took some notes about what colors she might use. The process of adding those colors had begun here in the studio. It was shaping up to be another happy fucking painting. No surprise there.
A sudden jolt knocked her from the stool, as if something had rammed into the side of the building. She managed to land on her feet, but the easel began to shake. Before her mind could formulate the word earthquake, she was reaching for the painting she’d poured so many hours into. But she wasn’t fast enough. The easel crashed to the floor and with it her paints, and of course, the canvas. Her palette scraped across the bright meadow landscape, leaving behind a dark trail of colors that streaked a meandering footpath. Her water can, packed with brushes, rolled across the half-finished painting, spreading a pool of running colors as it went. The shaking seemed to go on forever, but she knew it couldn’t have lasted more than a minute.
“Holy shit,” she heard Brad say. He peered over the partial wall of the upstairs bedroom. “That was a five or six, easy.”
“My painting, it’s ruined.” She dropped to her knees and began cleaning up the mess.
Brad’s steps sounded heavily on the carpeted stairs, and his bare feet slapped on the hardwood floor as he came to her aid.
“Are you sure it’s not salvageable, babe?”
She glared up at him. “What do you think?”
He squatted and took in the earthquake’s handiwork. “Good God.”
“It’s completely trashed.”
“I don’t know…”
“What do you mean, you don’t know? Look at it!”
“You’ve been saying how you’d kill to create something of real substance, something that spoke from deep within you. Maybe this is it. I’ve never seen anything like it. Take those whorls…” He traced circles in the air to mimic a wavelike pattern that appeared in the fresh paints that had spilled onto the overturned canvas.
“So you think I should pretend this was intentional, like Spinal Tap and their fucking Black Album?”
“I think you should show it to someone besides me. I just write about art. See what someone on the inside thinks. That’s my advice. I think you’ve got something here. Show it to Andy at the gallery. He won’t be shy about voicing an opinion.”
She hated to admit it, but it was quite possible that he was on to something. Despite the absurdity of it, there did seem to be an intentional quality to the mess before her. A guiding hand, even.
“Fine,” she said, still staring at her altered work, less anger in her voice. “I’ll see what Andy has to say.”

*****

Andy was good enough to peddle the vapid landscapes she painted, but he pressed her to dig deeper every chance he got. She couldn’t seem to convince him that she was hard enough on herself for both of them.
His condo was an alley walk-up, directly above the Crescendo Gallery. Tracee buzzed him, and a moment later he buzzed her in without asking who it was.
The dark alley entrance and somewhat dilapidated condition of the old brick building didn’t exactly give the place an inviting air, but she’d been to Andy’s before and wasn’t surprised by the view of Elliott Bay or the lavish décor of the interior. The excess of it repulsed her. She saw no justification for wanton extravagance and prayed there was a special circle of hell for the Martha Stewarts of the world.
And yet you want people to shell out their disposable income for your art, she thought. The contradiction gave her a wickedly gleeful feeling.
“Tracee, it’s so good to see you.” He gave her a peck on the cheek and beckoned her inside. “You survived last week’s quake?”
“Yeah,” she said, taking off her coat and handing it to him. “Good to see that your building came through it in one piece.”
“It took some structural damage, actually. Nothing visible, though. Nothing beyond repair.”
“The earthquake’s why I’m here, indirectly.”
“Really? I’m intrigued. Come, have a seat. Espresso?”
“No, thanks. Where’s Modest? I haven’t seen him in ages.”
Andy let himself drop into a banana-yellow designer chair across from the retro sofa Tracee had opted for.
“I haven’t either,” he said.
“What?”
“We broke up.”
The matter-of-fact announcement affected her more than she would have thought. “Damn, I’m sorry to hear that. Why? What happened?”
“Oh, it’s not a new story, or an interesting one. He had his priorities, and I had mine. Turns out they didn’t complement each other.”
“When was this? The two of you seemed so good together.”
“It came to a head last month. It was the right decision, Trace. It’s not one of those breakups where we’re going to keep trying to patch things up. Neither one of us has the least interest in going down that road. But enough about me and my man troubles. I hope you’ve come here on more cheerful business than that.”
“I’ve brought some photographs I’d like you to take a look at.” She rummaged through her bag and hauled out a large manila envelope.
“My, this is intriguing.”
She dropped a fan of colored glossies on the coffee table between them.
“It’s my latest piece. I’m curious what you think.”
Andy’s face elongated as he picked up one photo after another. The snapshots of her painting were definitely making some kind of impression, but Tracee wasn’t sure whether it was positive or negative.
“Oh, my God. Tracee, I’ve been curator at the Crescendo for twelve years, and I don’t know if I’ve ever been this excited about an artist’s decision to change direction. I mean, this is exactly what you’ve been looking to do, isn’t it?”
“It was an accident.”
“What? What do you mean? Wait, you said this has something to do with the earthquake?”
She flashed a smile that was anything but.
“That’s right. I was toiling away on another one of my middle-of-the-road wonders when the ground started to shake.”
“You mean—”
“It’s a one of a kind. Not another one like it, and not likely to be.”
“Oh, you’ve got to try. There’s no way to justify letting this go. I can market the hell out of the one from the pictures, maybe build some hype. But the hype won’t last forever. Eventually you’ll need to bring more work in this line to the table. Though I have to say, fans of your babbling brooks and nursing fawns are bound to be let down…”
“I don’t give a fuck about my fans if I can figure out a way to duplicate the style of this new painting.”
“Well, we might want to leave that out of the press release.”
She laughed despite herself. Modest would have found it funny, too.
Her gaze landed on a two-day old Seattle Times, opened to a headline reading, Man Claims Strange Power Result of 2001 Quake.
“What’s this?” she asked, pointing at the newspaper.
“Oh, that. Don’t tell me you haven’t heard about Nisqually Joe?” She shook her head. “My friend Meesha brought that over. She knows him. He’s this guy who, supposedly, can make things tremble and shake by touching them, ever since the Nisqually quake back in 2001. Sounds like a couple of men I know, but anyway, Meesha swears it’s true. The Times tracked him down for a historical tie-in to last week’s rumbler.”
“You’re kidding me.” Tracee picked up the paper to get a better look at the accompanying photo of Nisqually Joe. “He’s not bad looking for a nut job.”
“You can have it if you want. I’ve read it. I just keep it out as a conversation piece.”
“We’ll call it a trade, then. You can keep the glossies.”
She tucked the paper under her arm and retrieved her coat before leaving Andy to the development of his marketing campaign for her new artistic period.

*****

For weeks she tried to reproduce the startling effects of her accidental masterpiece, but nothing came close. When she began with detailed scenery befitting her previous style, she couldn’t find the means to mar the pleasant mood with any believability. When she tried flinging paint at an empty canvas—dropping it on the floor and rolling her water can across it—the result was a shoddy imitation of the original accident. Shaking the canvas to disturb newly spilled colors produced no encouraging results, either.
It might have been easier to give up on the whole damn thing if Andy’s plan hadn’t turned into more of a success than either of them had imagined. He’d taken out space in several high-profile art magazines and added Tracee’s earthquake painting to the Crescendo’s lineup. One local critic had already referred to her new mode as a “post-9/11 reaction to the artist’s own pre-9/11 sensibilities.” Stuff and nonsense, as far as she was concerned, but she welcomed the publicity drummed up by such conjecture, though it increased the pressure for her to follow up Earthquake with a body of equally startling work.
The futility of her pursuit became obvious when her engineer friend, Keith, built a contraption that was meant to mimic the movements of a quake. He brought it to her apartment, and they bracketed one of her canvases into it so that it lay flat instead of upright. Keith threw the switch as Tracee drizzled and scraped paints across a landscape of heather-mantled hilltops. The end product was somewhat interesting but not worthy of her new phase. Work done using the machine would be recognized as a desperate attempt to try to recapture the depth and sincerity of Earthquake, the hellish menace of the damn thing.
Depressed one morning after nixing the machine method, she threw herself across a loveseat and massaged a circle of her forehead with one finger. She was denied even the small relief that a chat with Brad might have provided. He was at work, which meant he was trolling the city’s coffeehouses, laptop in hand, for just the right atmosphere to do some writing in. Sleep started to nibble at the fringe of her anxiety and dejection when the newspaper she’d brought home from Andy’s caught her eye. It lay on a nearby stool, and she wondered why it was still around. She’d read the article about Nisqually Joe. It did nothing to change her mind about his being a crackpot. Yet she hadn’t thrown the paper out. She was a pragmatist and skeptic by nature, but she was also an artist. She couldn’t explain away some coincidences as easily as most people. If the newspaper had taken up residence in her apartment, there may have been a reason.
Pulling a phone from her jeans pocket she called Andy.
“Hello?”
“Andy, it’s Tracee.”
“Hey, kiddo. Nothing to report on my end. Any breakthroughs on yours?”
“Um, no. Not yet. But I might be on to something.”
“That’s music to my ears!”
“What was the name of your friend, the one who knows this Nisqually Joe character?”
“Meesha? What do you want with her?”
“Can you give me her number? I want to meet this clown. I think that talking to him could open a door.”
“Hey, who am I to question the methods of my artists. I hope this leads to something.”
“I know you do. You’ve been beyond patient with me.”
She took down the number and slipped the phone back into her pocket.
It was a position she loathed being in, believing Nisqually Joe to be nothing more than a publicity seeker, while suddenly hoping he was much more. But we don’t always select our own cards in life, she realized. Ferreting the man out and talking to him for a half hour or so would be a diversion if nothing else. Maybe even an adventure. If Nisqually Joe really could make things tremble, their meeting may prove to be nothing short of fateful. How could she resist that possibility?
Meesha, it turned out, was only a casual acquaintance of Nisqually Joe’s, but she was able to dig up his phone number and address for Tracee. Apparently she’d been to a couple of parties at his place. As soon as Meesha read the address, Tracee knew it was an odd location, somewhere in the jumble of ugliness north of downtown Seattle. The kind of area where overpriced condos butted up against crumbling apartment buildings, making it difficult to guess which end of the economic spectrum Mr. Joe was likely to represent. Tracee was willing to put her money on down and out, based on the man’s pitiful grab for media attention.
Yeah, because the wealthy would never stoop so low, she couldn’t help scolding herself.
It was a long walk, but the rains were temporarily hidden away in the endless overcast, and the air was warm enough. The article hadn’t gone into great detail, and by the time she reached her destination, the entire errand seemed mad. What did she expect from this man, even if he did possess an unusual ability? Did she actually think she’d be able to convince him to collaborate with her? And if he did, would his power produce the desired results? She knew she should have been more concerned about whether the guy was a dangerous lunatic, but that was the least of the questions swirling through her mind.
“Hello, Ms. Califax,” Joe said over the intercom when she buzzed. “Please, come in.”
He lived in an old building, but it had a certain discreet elegance that appealed to Tracee, a geographically vague architecture that pulled her out of Seattle and into a kind of make-believe realm where strange deals might be struck and men might be able to make the world tremble with a touch. By the time she reached the stranger’s fourth-floor apartment, she’d already decided to suggest they use his place instead of hers for their collaboration. She felt oddly at home.
A tall, shirtless man answered the door as soon as she knocked. He looked even better than in the grainy newspaper photo. Muscular but not to excess, he had deep, knowing eyes and a mane of black hair she suddenly longed to run her fingers through.
“Mr.…”
“Joe.”
“Okay, Joe. Thanks for agreeing to meet.”
“I was intrigued by your unwillingness to tell me exactly what it is you want.”
“I don’t mean to be cryptic. It’s just easier to talk about in person.”
“Well, I can relate to that.”
He led her through the main room of his apartment to a small, mostly empty, spare room, the only light what filtered through an open window. Gauzy white curtains fluttered inward with a breeze.
“It’s nice, this place,” she said. He only stared. “As I said over the phone, I read the piece about you in the Times, and it seems that you may be in a position to help me.”
“Believe it or not, Ms. Califax—”
“Tracee.”
“Tracee, believe it or not, I didn’t go public with this to attract attention.”
“Why, then?”
He sat down near the window, lit a cigarette, and gestured for her to sit as well. “It’s like this,” he said, gazing out the window. “Someone mean and powerful was trying to hold this over my head. You know, blackmail me. I got tired of it so I called the paper myself. I figured most people would assume I was just another Seattle wacko, maybe use me as an icebreaker at parties for a few weeks and forget all about me.”
“What were you being blackmailed for?”
“This and that. My ability can be traced to a few… unsavory incidents. I won’t bore you with the details.”
“Okay, fine. But I honestly don’t see how anyone could forget about you after reading the article. I haven’t been able to put you out of my mind.”
“Oh?”
“I was working on a painting when the recent earthquake struck. I’m an artist. The quake knocked over my easel, paints and all. At first I thought the painting was ruined. But my… a friend helped me to see it was actually an improvement. A major improvement. That earthquake turned my painting into the kind of work I’ve been wanting to do all my life.”
“What does any of this have to do with me?”
“Well, I haven’t been able to reproduce the effect. And I—”
“And you thought I might come to the rescue by making little earthquakes to knock over your half-finished masterpieces.” He nodded knowingly and blew smoke from the side of his mouth. Tracee sat on the edge of a sofa, her hands pinched between her knees. “I’m afraid you’ve gone to an awful lot of trouble for nothing. One thing that didn’t come up in the article is that I never use the power anymore.”
Of course, she thought. How convenient.
“Why not?” She leaned forward.
“I first discovered what I was capable of when I grabbed my kid sister by the shoulders because she broke a model airplane that meant a lot to me. It was the only thing my dad and I ever worked on together that I can remember. Anyway, my hands started to tingle and burn, and suddenly I was shaking the stuffing out of her. When I backed away, she kept on shaking. Scared the hell out of me. I thought she was having some kind of seizure, but she wasn’t. The shaking passed, and we both knew I had caused it. She’s given me a wide berth ever since. Can’t say I blame her. Sometimes I wish I could do the same.
“I was seventeen then. The Nisqually quake had just done its thing a few days before, so it didn’t take a brain surgeon to associate the two things—the quake and my odd little gift. I’d been at Discovery Park the morning it hit. Just hanging out by myself, wishing Susan Walker had some vague idea of my existence. Feeling sorry for myself, basically. But I’ll tell you, it was the most amazing feeling when the earth lurched and suddenly everything was in motion—the trees, the paved footpaths, everything. It was like the world had turned into one vast sea, like stepping onto the surface of some strange planet. I got down on all fours to keep from falling over, and I really did feel a kind of kinship with the earthquake. No, with the earth itself. It was like nothing I’d ever experienced before.
“But like I said, I was seventeen, so after the incident with my sister, it was easy to convince myself to use the power inside me for mischief. Some of the things I did I won’t tell you, but I rattled a few construction scaffolds, even got a whole skyscraper swaying one time, just to watch the panicked slapstick of the window washers who were hanging about twenty stories up.”
“Oh, my God, I remember that,” Tracee said. “It was a sidebar in the paper. No one could figure out why the office workers in that tower all experienced an earthquake when no one else in the city did.”
“Yup. The structural engineers were baffled. The geologists had no clue. I was the only one who knew—until now. I’d gone too far on that one, though. Making the news was kind of a slap of reality, so I toned down my displays after that. I started to wonder if I might be able to do something useful with my gift.”
“And were you?”
“I finally got my chance on a train trip out to Chicago a few years ago. An old man boarded at Sand Point, Idaho. Sat right next to me. Turns out he was headed for North Dakota, but it was lucky he made White Fish, Montana. Started complaining about chest pains and shortness of breath as soon as he got on, and I didn’t take him for a liar. He looked sickly. I also believed him when he told me his wife and her boyfriend had hightailed it with his motor home. He had the look of a man who knew good fortune by reputation only.
“I was up to get him water every ten minutes or so. When I got back from one of these trips to the potable water station, he was clutching his chest real hard, and shivering. Without knowing what the hell I was doing, I pried his hand away from his heart and put mine there. Then he really started to shake and shimmy.”
Joe had let the ash grow long at the end of his cigarette. He pulled one last lungful of smoke from it and mashed it out in an ashtray, but not before the ash cylinder could break free and land on his bare chest. He casually wiped the biggest clumps away and continued.
“Next thing you know, his breathing normalized and he calmed down.”
“You jumpstarted his ticker,” Tracee said, stunned.
Joe nodded and smiled out the window. “He was all right after that. Made it to White Fish without a problem, but he got off there to be on the safe side. I made him promise to check himself in with a doctor.”
“So why would you abandon this ability of yours if it’s capable of pulling off such miracles?”
“Because I’ve always taken the side of Frankenstein’s monster. There are consequences to playing God. This old man on the train, he made it to White Fish, like I said. I watched him from the train as he stepped off a curb to cross the street. But that’s as far as he got. An oil truck ran over him like it would a rabbit or a coyote. The last I saw of him as the train pulled out was his head rolling away from his body, spouting a pinwheel of stringy blood. It traced a gory arc through the pool of light given off from a streetlamp.”
“Jesus.”
“Yeah, I put my trembling urges to rest on the Empire Builder that night. Haven’t called upon them since.”
“I understand.” Tracee stood up but made no move to leave, only crossed her arms and stared out the window. Finally she said, “I’m not asking you to save a life, you know.”
“Aren’t you?” he said, his look sardonic. “Isn’t that exactly what you’re asking?”
“Yes, I guess it is.”
She shouldered her purse and crossed to the door.
“Then I’ll do it,” Joe said in a calm, soothing voice.
She’d expected a remonstrance, which wouldn’t have stopped her, but this quiet, sudden acceptance of her proposal halted her as surely as the glare of Medusa would have.
“Thank you,” she said without turning to face him. “I’ll call you.” She closed the door behind her and hurried to the stairs, down to the street, out into a jungle of gaudy billboards and murderous traffic. For once she was floating above all the ugliness, the decaying city that bore her up like a concrete sea, even if there was a rent in her hull. She might drown in that sea eventually, but right now it held no threat of death. It offered her, in cupped hands, a chance for a new beginning.

*****

A week later they had begun. They spread a tarpaulin across the hardwood floor of Joe’s living room, and Tracee moved her painting apparatus in, being sure to leave a path to a small balcony where Joe kept a table and two chairs—perfect for morning coffee, she noted. By the end of another week they were sleeping together.
In the beginning Joe tried squatting and holding onto the legs of the easel to get it moving, but it didn’t work well. As much paint ended up on him as on the canvas. He tried to make the tarp ripple enough at his touch to upend the easel, which sometimes did knock the thing over, but it never generated the momentum needed to effect the strange waves in the spilled paint that Tracee was after. He could have done as well to bring it down with a swift kick. She tried to weather the early experiments with dignity if not grace. But secretly she would seethe at every botched attempt. Joe was her last shot at turning her career around, and she feared he was blowing it. The sex was okay, but it didn’t seem to be inspiring her paramour to the creative heights she’d envisioned.
Then one day Joe proposed an idea. It was a little risky, but what great endeavor didn’t carry some risk? He determined to set the floor of his apartment trembling, assuring Tracee that he could pull back before the entire building started to shake. She doubted he could be sure of that but was sold on the idea in an instant.
Luckily, it went off as planned, and the results were astounding. If anything, Earthquake 2 was darker and more evocative than its predecessor. A bond quickly formed between Joe and Tracee, and soon Brad was out of the picture completely. Andy loved every bit of it. Tracee’s reversal sparked a marketing bonanza for the Crescendo. There were photo shoots and press junkets, parties and exhibitions. If all the attention didn’t mean Tracee had arrived, as so many of her art friends put it, she was certainly no more than an exit or two up the road.
But fame was never more elusive than when it seemed within reach. The day before Tracee was to meet with a high-powered buyer from New York, her partnership with Joe ran aground.
“I need you to sit down,” he told Tracee as soon as she walked through the door.
“Okay, I’m sitting. What is it? I’m bushed.”
“I can’t do it anymore.”
“What are you talking about?”
“The power to make things shudder with my hands. I’ve lost it.”
“No you fucking haven’t,” she said, standing and shaking her head.
“I’ve been trying all afternoon. I can’t even make ripples in a glass of water.”
With great force, she backhanded him in the jaw. “You can’t do this to me!” she screamed.
“Do what to you? I’ve remade you. How is it my fault if you can’t maintain the success we’ve created?”
We? Ha! That’s a laugh. You’d still be telling your pathetic story to any armchair journalist with a bendable ear if I hadn’t rescued you from obscurity. Don’t go putting yourself in my league.”
She’d backed him onto the balcony without realizing it. Cool, late-afternoon air tousled her hair.
“Listen, Tracee, we can work this out. Maybe we’ll come up with another way—”
“There is no other way. I tried everything before paying you a visit. You were my last hope. Isn’t that pathetic? You!
Her hands shot to his throat. He tried to pry them away, but her grip was iron strong. He bent backwards over the railing as she applied more pressure and leaned into him. For a moment she wasn’t sure if she intended to strangle him or send him over the edge for gravity to deal with. Nature stepped in to decide for her.
This one was different than the one that had inspired her new artistic style. There was no bang at the beginning. It started off mellow but quickly escalated to a frenzy of thrusts and tremors. For a moment Tracee wondered if Joe had lied to her about losing his power, feared that this quake was his doing. But it wasn’t. He looked as perplexed as she felt, and she doubted he could have caused this much motion at the peak of his abilities. The rumblings were enough to knock her off balance and pull her away from Joe. A wave of energy surged straight up through the building and flicked Tracee over the balcony railing, as easily as she might have shooed a languid fly from its perch. On the way down she remembered a game she used to play in gym class as a girl. One student would sit at the center of a parachute that was stretched across the floor while everyone else gripped the edge with both hands and pulled until the rider was well suspended. Then they launched the lucky child into the air repeatedly. It was a game of trust and daring. Flipping over the balcony railing had felt like one of those harmless tosses, but there was nothing harmless about her landing.
When the ground stopped shaking, she could see Joe up above, unmoving, staring down at her with vengeance that was visible even from that distance.
“Are you okay?” a voice called to her from ground level. Footsteps followed along the sidewalk to where she lay in a crippled heap. “Ma’am, are you all right? I saw you fall.”
The man was young, and he squatted beside her. She took his hand, wanting to touch one last human being before life drifted out of her.
“Just hold my hand for a bit, would you?” she said. The young man nodded.
And he didn’t stop nodding. His shoulders began to shake, then his whole body. Tracee let go of his hand, but he went on shaking until at last he fell over sideways, unconscious.
From above there came the sound of Joe’s laughter. She refused to meet his stare, because it was obvious he laughed at her plight. It would have been possible now to get back to work, and she wouldn’t have needed any more help from Joe, or anyone. But there was a new wrinkle, of course.
Tracee Califax was nearly dead.


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Contents

Crisscross Purposes

Foreword