Make Do
Molly Laich

Nathan Barnes came home not even that much later than he’d promised, but he smiled too much and chewed carelessly on the string of his hooded sweatshirt in July, and that was enough.

“You’re on drugs,” his girlfriend Laura said.

“I’m not on drugs.”

“Why do you have your hands behind your back?” She said. “Why are you all squirrely?”

“I’m not all squirrely,” Nathan said. What does it mean to be squirrely? He was happy was what he was. Of course she thought something was up. They should break up. Nathan wanted to break up.

“We’re breaking up,” Laura said.

Nathan hadn’t been doing drugs. He’d hidden his stained blue fingertips behind his back and she’d gotten the wrong idea, but it was just as bad because he wasn’t supposed to be painting trains anymore either. It’s irresponsible, there’s no money in it, he’d been arrested, warrants out for his arrest in Canada and so on. He promised he’d stop, and he did for a while, but fuck. He was only 22. He couldn’t take it anymore, the camel tripped over the straw or whatever. Nathan was so good at painting trains and everybody hated him for it.

He’d have to move back in with his mother. She’d give him a hard time when he showed up on her doorstep with a duffle bag. She’d call him a Bum, because she was old fashioned like that. He didn’t want to go to his mother’s right away.

Nathan left Laura’s and drove to the defunct GM plant in Pontiac where he and his buddy Ed had painted pumpkins on the side of the building, like a Halloween thing. Now, some nine months later, he found the entire mural done over in ugly work, dripping z’s so lazy and ignorant it made his eyes burn. Nathan tried calling Ed but the number was disconnected. He headed back north to Waterford in wider and wider circles around his mother’s house, passing two different McDonalds’ before pulling into River’s Edge apartments, where Ed lived.

Everybody knows that River’s Edge is bad news. There’s no river, for one. Children were constantly drowning in the shared swimming pool, broken glass, God, the lower class did not care about their kids. A gang of nine-year-olds ran out in front of Nathan’s car with wild eyes and dirty faces, wielding sticks and screaming some little apocalypse, ten at fucking night. Christ. Those kids have no chance. Laura’s apartment was in Clarkston. At Laura’s apartment the staircase was indoors, or you could take an elevator.

He hadn’t seen Ed in a month, maybe more. Ed always kept a shovel in his trunk, for burying road kill. Once they were driving down the highway and Ed pulled over to pick up a small fawn. The air was sticky and swarming with horseflies. “Why are we doing this?” Nathan asked, and Ed said, “If we don’t, who will?” The carcass was so far gone that it made him vomit to the side while he was digging. Ed loved all women. It made walking around the mall a serious nuisance, because in his mind, every girl that passed was a treasure. Tall, fat, thin—a dwarf even—he would stop and say, “Ooh, look at this one.” Ed wasn’t as into painting trains; he mostly just went along with Nathan for the thrill of it. At home, he splashed primary colors on whatever surfaces were free, things like doors and windows. To Nathan, Ed’s paintings looked like clowns with drooling, downs syndrome mouths. They were terrible, but rendered with such tenderness that one couldn’t help but admire them.

These are the things that Nathan thought about when he entered Ed’s old apartment and the people sitting there told him that he was too late, that Ed had blown his brains out three weeks ago and was dead.

There was Josh, Ed’s old roommate, this girl Cheryl, and a wily, shirtless redneck-type Nathan had never met named Tim. Tim was hunched over a mirror, breaking and deseeding marijuana.

What happened was this: He’d buzzed and Cheryl answered. “Password.”

“Oh. My bad, I’m looking for Ed’s place.”

“Who dis be?”

“What? I mean…”


She buzzed him in, and he waited in the hallway while Josh undid the many, many locks, and he walked in to a living room similar but not the same, Ed’s paintings leaning against the walls but less than usual, the cat smell gone, and he felt a rock in his stomach, like he already knew what they were going to tell him.

“He shot himself in the head?” Nathan repeated, as if maybe they’d say, “No, no, you misheard us! He took himself happy to bed!”

“I can’t believe you didn’t hear about it,” Cheryl said.

He felt guilty for abandoning his friends for some girl—some hot, sensual girl with done up nails in natural colors, an office-pretty girl. Was she thinking about him? Poor Ed. Why had he done it?

“Oh fuck,” Josh said. “You never met Katie.”

“I think I did,” Nathan said. “Tall, thin, kind of worse for the wear? I saw them at a show downtown. He told me they were engaged.”

Tim snorted. “‘Till she hocked the fucking ring. I don’t believe we’ve met,” and they shook hands. Tim had a faint backcountry accent that Nathan tried not to judge.

“You know how Ed had a thing for hurt animals and shit?” Josh said. “He moved on to hookers. Katie destroyed him.”

“Fucking women, man,” Tim said.

“You’re lucky you don’t have to deal with them,” Josh said.

“That’s right. I am queer,” Tim confirmed. “Present company excluded, by the way. About women being the devil I mean,” and he tipped a pretend hat in Cheryl’s direction.

“I don’t give a fuck either way, Tim,” Cheryl said. She was not an ugly girl, exactly. She was enormous and freckled with red, frizzy hair. Every time Nathan had seen her—this was maybe the second or third time—she wore the same, purple hooded sweatshirt. She balanced a fat can of Fosters on her stomach. Nathan wondered what it must be like for her, to be so doomed.

He sat down and they talked more about Ed. A big red candle sat in the center of the table, calmly threatening to set all of them on fire. Around that were a few beer cans sawed in half for ashtrays, a couple VHS’s with titles Nathan didn’t recognize, a filthy, stuffed panda bear, and a paperback facing him at an odd angle, something and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

Nathan tried to send Tim a psychic message with the words, “Who wants to get high?” and then Tim said, “What do you say, gentleman, and Cheryl” (fake hat tip) “shall we smoke a joint for our fallen friend Ed?”

Cheryl’s Fosters was gone and a tall, thin can of PBR rested in its place. Nathan watched the joint travel around the circle, intently as a dog stares at table scraps. Josh took a hit and then coughed for an hour. Finally he said, “So where have you been, Nathan? We haven’t seen you around.”

“You know, Clarkston.”

“Oh sure, that girl. Lindsey?”

“Laura,” Cheryl corrected him.

“Ah yes, Laura.” Josh held onto the joint with a far off look, like an old man remembering. How long was he going to hold onto that thing, Jesus. Nathan wanted to turn on a television or run around the parking lot or take a bath. Josh told an irrelevant anecdote about Clarkston while the three of them stared at the burning joint in his hands.

“Pass that shit, Josh. It’s canoeing,” Tim said.

“You’ve got to sort of hit it from the opposite side,” Josh said as he handed it over.

“I know,” Nathan said. He hit the joint, delicately, made it burn straight again. He didn’t feel it right away. Creeper weed, they call it. He exhaled and said, “It’s like riding a bike.”

Everyone laughed. Nathan had always been funny. Laura used to laugh at his jokes, and then she stopped.

“Now, that’s creeper weed,” Tim said. “You’re gonna feel it in a minute.”

There it was. He could see the floating shapes on the back of his eyelids, and then the odd knowing enveloped his head in something heavy. The furniture looked like it belonged in a dollhouse, and the people inside were actors and also against him. He delivered pizzas and didn’t have a girlfriend. He had no idea what he was doing with his life. It was hot. The night air hung wet outside the window and clung to t-shirts. Plants were dying and children were crashing their bikes into moving cars; he was sure of it.

“We broke up,” Nathan said.

“Who?” Tim asked.

“Laura. Well, she broke up with me.”

“What a cunt,” Tim said.

“You don’t even know her,” Josh said.

“True, true. Did you want to do a shot about it?” Tim went to the kitchen and brought out a bottle of Canadian Mist. Without knowing why, the bottle scared Nathan. He saw himself out in the parking lot, fumbling to open his car door in the dark. The bottle seemed to portend a bleak but unavoidable future. It occurred to him how safe he’d played everything of late.

“I mean, I wouldn’t call her a cunt,” Cheryl said. “But she was kind of a bitch. No offense, Nathan.”

But it did hurt him, weirdly. Laura was shrill and unpredictable, but she was known for being nice. She was always baking people things and remembering birthdays. “That’s cool,” Nathan said. “Why do you say that, though?”

“I don’t know. She cornered me at this party once, and she just rubbed me the wrong way. She kept telling me that I was pretty. And you know, I didn’t ask, and I’m not stupid. I know when I’m being condescended to.”

“You are pretty, Darling,” Tim said.

“Try not to miss the point,” Cheryl said. “I was drunk or something so I think I was a little blunt, but I told her that she shouldn’t just throw words like ‘beautiful’ around all the time. I said that if everyone is beautiful than it loses all its meaning. And then—” Cheryl pulled another beer out of a brown paper bag on the floor next to her, Stroh’s this time. “I’ll never forget this. She said, ‘You’re lucky, Cheryl. People think that because I’m pretty I’m stupid.’ She went on and on about what a terrible burden it was to be pretty because people thought she was dumb, and she wouldn’t shut up until I agreed with her that this was some unfortunate thing. I’m sorry Nathan, but that’s stupid.”

“Is she dumb?” Tim asked Nathan.

“She’s not dumb,” Cheryl said. “Which is what makes it so stupid. Firstly, you’re not dumb. Secondly, you don’t just get to be everything. And if you are, you don’t get to be mad if people don’t notice that in the first five seconds of meeting you. Here’s a solution to your problem, bitch: be smart and pretty and shut up about it.”

The men thought about that for a second. They seemed temporarily pregnant with the idea that they didn’t understand what Cheryl was talking about. Not really.

“Laura’s pretty hot,” Josh said. “But yeah. Maybe kind of a snob I guess.”

“It’s not a big deal,” Nathan said.

“Other fish in the sea!” Tim said, and then, “That’s a stupid thing to say.”


Everyone remembered Ed at once and the room got quiet.

“I don’t know, I’m just surprised,” Nathan said.

“Really?” Cheryl said. “I’m not.”

“He was blue as hell,” Tim said. “And he had no impulse control.”

Still, Nathan couldn’t imagine putting a loaded gun in his mouth and pulling the trigger. Life gets bad, but you can always rearrange things, can’t you? Grow a beard. Move to another state. Murder the girl before you murder yourself, maybe. Nathan couldn’t kill himself because he was afraid. He’d been afraid of hell ever since he took mushrooms and got lost barefoot in the woods that one time, running from red-eyed monsters. Looking back, they were probably just raccoons or something, but he could never shake the cold, Godless feeling. Crazy as it sounds, in the moment Nathan burned with envy at Ed’s courage.

They all took another shot, this time somberly. It felt warm inside of him, and mixed with the pot, his heart dropped to a low hum.

“It’s been like, six months,” Nathan said. “The pot, I mean.”

Josh twisted his legs up underneath him like a flower. He’d gotten thinner since Nathan saw him last. His skin was pale and looked sunken in. He looked like his best friend shot himself three weeks ago. “You always come back to it, don’t you?” Josh said.

“Well, so far.”

“Most of the time I try not to think about it,” Josh said. “But sometimes I just can’t believe I’m like this.”

“Like what?” Nathan asked.

“You know,” Josh gestured around the room. Their eyes landed on the dirty panda, the stained, pink carpet, and the stale smoke that hung in the air around them.

“I just like to have a nice time,” Tim said.

“You know that’s not entirely true,” Josh said. “I mean, sure you like to have a nice time, but there are better ways to do it.”

“Like what?” Cheryl said.

“I don’t know. Fucking picnics. Gardening. What do normal people do to have fun?” Josh looked at Nathan.

“Laura is really into scrapbooking.”

“Is she somebody’s Grandma?” Tim said.

“She’s twenty-five.” Nathan didn’t tell them about the watermelon-themed bathroom accessories from Target or the shots of wheat grass they drank together every morning over the kitchen sink.

“You know he was shooting up, right?” Josh said.

“No,” Nathan said.

“Not for very long,” Cheryl said. “Just a couple of times.”

Tim was without a shirt and it made Nathan jealous. He wore a silver chain and a blue rag around his wrist that he untied and used to wipe his brow. Nathan pulled his shirt over his head, balled it up and threw it in Cheryl’s direction, but it landed pitifully short. He looked down at the veins in his arms and imagined them pulsing with good feeling.

“Nice abs,” Tim said. He winked. There came a pounding at the door and the moment was buried.

“Be quiet,” Josh said. He put his hand in the air, and again with the knock. “How the fuck did they get in without buzzing?”

“Anybody could have let them in,” Cheryl said.

It seemed to Nathan like they all knew something he didn’t, but that turned out not to be true.

“Who is it?” Josh said.

“Where the fuck is Ed?”

All the men in the room stood up at the same time. Nathan felt a confrontation coming and the idea at once angered and exhilarated him.

“He’s gone, man,” Josh said.

“Let me in and let’s talk about it.”

“Just move along,” Josh said. “He’s dead.”

“Bullshit, he’s dead. He owes me $300 fucking dollars.”

Tim reached for something on the table that Nathan hadn’t noticed before. It was a tube sock filled with pennies and tied off, a homemade weapon designed by Ed, toward the end, for situations just like this one.

No one said anything for thirty seconds, maybe more, but the man hadn’t left. He started pounding on the door again. “I can break this door down,” he said.

“Oh really motherfucker?” Tim said. “You’ll huff and you’ll puff? I’d like to see you try.”

Nathan felt his hands turn to fists. He was ready to kill a man if he had to. It shouldn’t have been that way, but the men in Ed’s apartment had all the power, and the guy in the hallway knew it.

“I’ll be back,” the guy said. “And I won’t be alone. That’s for damn sure.”

The whole thing was over before it had begun, but something had happened between them and they were united. They’d brought a piece of Ed back from the dead. Nathan saw him keyed up and sweating, waving foam nun chucks around. He stared at a memory of the tiny, precise slashes running up and down Ed’s arms and across his chest. Some girl asked him once, “Are you a cutter?” It seemed forward and Nathan was embarrassed, but Ed just looked down at the scars like they were nothing and said, “I used to be.”

“Ed is here,” Josh said. “Can you feel it? I’m certain.”

Cheryl started sniffling in the corner, and her fat, freckled cheeks were streaked with black, like prison bars slamming down on her face.

“Honey,” Tim said, and went and sat down at Cheryl’s feet.

Nathan had an irrational fear that one of the raccoons he’d seen tripping in the forest was caught in the bathroom and trying to claw its way out, when at the same time, something crashed in the kitchen. A cat squawked and ran down the hallway into the back bedroom.

“Ed’s cat is still here?” Nathan said. It didn’t seem right. He felt haunted.

“Did you think he shot the cat too?” Cheryl buried her face in Tim’s shoulder.

Nathan looked down at the tiny wrinkles in his stomach and imagined a demon burrowing out through his belly button. He was gross and ashamed of himself.

“Hey,” Josh said. And he repeated it. “Hey. It’s not your fault.”

Nathan looked up to respond and realized just in time that Josh hadn’t been talking to him at all.

“It’s just such a waste,” Cheryl said.

She wiped away her tears with the sleeve of her purple hoodie and Tim poured out four more shots. The shots tasted good, and more than that, they drowned out the ghosts. The men were mostly shirtless and still buzzing from that thing that just happened.

“God damn, Tim,” Cheryl said. “You’re like the terminator.”

Tim looked pretty pleased with himself. “Oh, I will put the sissy on the shelf,” he said.

Best of all, it wasn’t over. The guy said he was coming back with a strung out army, didn’t he? They churned over the possibilities. The men had a war to plunge head first into. Nathan wanted to overturn the coffee table and set up a sniper rifle behind it.

“I have guns,” Tim said. “We don’t want to go that route.”

They imagined masked ninjas swinging through the living room window on zip cables. Did he mean tonight? Would he be coming back tonight or just some time? Cheryl thought the whole thing was absurd. She was knee deep in cheap beer and female pacifism; she had searched the horizon and couldn’t find anything she was afraid of. Should they call some other guys over?

Cheryl didn’t want any other guys over. “Ed would have wanted us to die here alone,” Cheryl said. “Together.”

In the end, it was all about taking their best guess at what Ed may very well have wanted. They decided to do nothing. They would wait, and they would see. They smoked another bowl and the world went dizzier. Nathan went to the bathroom with Josh calling after him, “Make do, the light doesn’t work.”

In the mirror, Nathan looked at his face hovering above his naked torso and thought about what nipple rings would look and feel like. A striped yellow tie laid hanging off the counter and Nathan tied it around his forehead. “Throw ‘em up if you’re a soldier!” he told his reflection, but he didn’t throw anything up. His cell phone glowed in the dark room and reminded him, wearily. Laura had texted three times, each an hour apart on the dot. “Are you coming home?” “We’ll talk in the morning.” And the latest, at 1:13 AM, “When are you coming home?” He thought of mean ways to respond but decided not responding was the meanest. He looked back at his gravelly reflection and made out white teeth grinning back at him.

He came back and sat on the couch next to Cheryl, who smelled pink and had laid her bosom out for him like a pillow. The others were talking about who the man in the hallway might have been. They had some guesses, and overall, were not impressed. They asked Nathan if he had any leads on customers they could reach out to in Clarkston, and he felt the stirrings of enterprise. Painting trains and smoking weed: Nathan knew there was probably more to life but his memory for those finer things escaped him. Cheryl ran her fingers through his hair. When she talked it made his cheeks buzz, and he murmured, “Say other things.”

He imagined an army of Charlies swarming the building, desperate kids with tweaked livers and beady eyes who wanted inside the dead man’s apartment. “We’ve come for your gold and your women!” The enemy shouts, and the heroes yell back, “Never!” Nathan Barnes was young, and he knew it. Fuck everybody who had ever told him how little he knew. Knowing has nothing to do with it. We know and we do it anyway. Outside, the sun had long since done its worst, and even the most delinquent children were tuckered out, asleep in their beds. The world seemed cut out of construction paper. Simple. A war was on its way. Ed was dead, and Nathan was still alive.

Molly Laich lives in Seattle. She writes film reviews, makes up stories and helps to edit Unstuck Magazine. Read about her secret life at here.