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Gilbert Makes a List


Gilbert Schebell made lists when he was nervous. In seventh grade, when it was his turn in the mandatory school spelling bee, he whispered the names of the first five presidents into the microphone before incorrectly spelling ''chlorophyll.'' George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, c-h-l-o-r-o-p-h-y-l. Five years later, just before he asked Maggie Johnson to the Homecoming dance, it was a list of the richest countries in the world. Luxembourg, Equatorial Guinea, United Arab Emirates, Norway, Ireland, will-you-go-to-the-dance-with-me?, it's-okay-I-understand.

Here was the problem with Gilbert making lists when he was nervous: He was always nervous. School, job interviews, girls, small talk. They had no time for his lists, so they continued on without him.

The therapist told him that if he ever wanted to get a job or become independent, he had to ''re-train the brain.''

''When you get the urge to make a list,'' the therapist said, ''repeat to yourself, 'I don't need to make a list. I am having a compulsive urge.'''

The thought of re-training the brain made Gilbert nervous, so he made a list of Richard Gere's early films. Looking for Mr. Goodbar, American Gigolo, An Officer and a Gentleman, The Cotton Club, I-don't-need-to-make-a-list, I-am-having-a-compulsive-urge.

On Gilbert's thirtieth birthday, he sat at the dining room table with his mother and told her that the therapist wanted to put him on medication. His mother sliced him a piece of cake and told her that therapy was nonsense.

''We all have our ways,'' she said, although she never mentioned what her ways were. When he finished eating his cake, she told him to go to his room and change his clothes because they were going to a movie.

At the theater, she bought him a bucket of popcorn. The teen-ager behind the counter asked if he wanted butter. When Gilbert said yes, his mother put her hand on his forearm and shook her head at the pimply-faced teen-ager, who had his hand on the butter pump.

''No butter for him,'' she said. She had a special way of talking – like every word was a song, even the bad ones. ''It's not healthy.''

In the middle of the movie, Gilbert's mother made a strange sound. At first he thought she sneezed, but when he looked over, she was clutching her arm, not her nose. She made the strange sound again, but this time she jerked and her box of candy tumbled to the floor. Afterward, her body relaxed and her head fell back against the chair. Her eyes were open, but not blinking. No one noticed but Gilbert, who had his hand in his popcorn bucket.

''Mom?'' he said.

She didn't answer, so he made a list of the top five liberal arts colleges in the U.S. Amherst, Williams, Swarthmore, Wellesly, Middlebury.

That night, long after the movie and his mother had ended, he walked to their front door and inhaled under the soft light of the porch before pushing his key in the door. He'd lived there his whole life, so he knew well what was on the other side. To the right was a bookshelf of outdated encyclopedias. Down the hall, a curio cabinet of his mother's knick-knacks – winged angels with painted black eyes and miniature porcelain cats with no eyes at all. A few feet past the curio was a print of "Starry Night." They all waited for him: the creased books, the porcelain, the stars. But nothing breathed.

Gilbert closed his eyes. Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter.

Asia, Africa, North America, South America, Antarctica.

Nile, Amazon, Mississippi, Yangtze, Ob.

He exhaled.

E.K. Entrada's fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in several print and online journals, including Johnny America, Keyhole, Audience, Kyoto, Fiction Weekly and elsewhere. Read more at