Billy had committed himself in the middle of his final year at the Ilium School of Optometry. Nobody else suspected that he was going crazy. Everybody else thought he looked fine and was acting fine. Now he was in the hospital. The doctors agreed: He was going crazy.
The man assigned to the bed next to Billy’s was a former infantry captain named Eliot Rosewater. Rosewater was sick and tired of being drunk all the time. It was Rosewater who introduced Billy to science fiction, and in particular to the writings of Kilgore Trout. Rosewater had a tremendous collection of science-fiction paperbacks under his bed. He had brought them to the hospital in a steamer trunk.
Kilgore Trout became Billy’s favorite living author, and science fiction became the only sort of tales he could read. Rosewater was twice as smart as Billy, but he and Billy were dealing with similar crises in similar ways.
There was a still life on Billy’s bedside table-two pills, an ashtray with three lipstick stained cigarettes in it, one cigarette still burning, and a glass of water. The cigarettes belonged to Billy’s chain-smoking mother. She had sought the ladies’ room. She would be back at any moment now. Billy covered his head with his blanket again. He always covered his head when his mother came to see him in the mental ward-always got much sicker until she went away. It wasn’t that she was ugly, or had bad breath or a bad personality. She was a perfectly nice, standard-issue, brown-haired, white woman with a high-school education. She upset Billy simply by being his mother. She made him feel embarrassed and ungrateful and weak because she had gone to so much trouble to give him life, and to keep that life going, and Billy didn’t really like life at all.
Billy heard Eliot Rosewater come in and lie down. Rosewater’s bedsprings talked a lot about that. Rosewater was a big man, but not very powerful. He looked as though he might be made out of nose putty. And then Billy’s mother came back from the ladies’ room, sat down on a chair between Billy’s and Rosewater’s bed. Rosewater greeted her with melodious warmth, asked how she was today. He seemed delighted to hear that she was fine. He was experimenting with being ardently sympathetic with everybody he met. He thought that might make the world a slightly more pleasant place to live in. He called Billy’s mother ‘dear.’ He was experimenting with calling everybody ‘dear.’
‘Some day’ she promised Rosewater, ‘I’m going to come in here, and Billy is going to uncover his head, and do you know what he’s going to say?’
‘What’s he going to say, dear?’
‘He’s going to say, ‘Hello, Mom,” and he’s going to smile. He’s going to say, ‘Gee, it’s good to see you, Mom. How have you been?”‘
‘Today could be the day.’
‘Every night I pray.’
‘That’s a good thing to do.’
‘People would be surprised if they knew how much in this world was due to prayers.’
‘You never said a truer word, dear.’
‘Does your mother come to see you often?’
‘My mother is dead,’ said Rosewater. So it goes.
‘At least she had a happy life as long as it lasted.’
‘That’s a consolation, anyway.’
‘Billy’s father is dead, you know,’ said Billy’s mother. So it goes.
‘A boy needs a father.’
And on and on it went–that duet between the dumb, praying lady and the big, hollow man so full of loving echoes. He held a book he wanted to read, but he was much too polite to read and talk, too, easy as it was to give Billy’s mother satisfactory answers. The book was Maniacs in the Fourth Dimension, by Kilgore Trout. It was about people whose mental diseases couldn’t be treated because the causes of the diseases were all in the fourth dimension, and three-dimensional Earthling doctors couldn’t see those causes at all, or even imagine them. One thing Trout said that Rosewater liked very much was that there really were vampires and werewolves and goblins and angels and so on, but that they were in the fourth dimension. So was William Blake, Rosewater’s favorite poet, according to Trout. So were heaven and hell.