I started as a paperboy when I was 11. You weren't supposed to be allowed a route until you had passed your 12th birthday, but my father, keen to see me making my own way in the world and herniated before puberty, pulled some strings at the paper and got me one early. The route covered the richest neighbourhood in town, around Greenwood School, a district studded with mansions of rambling grandeur. This sounded like a plum posting, and so it was presented to me by the route manager, Mr McTivity, a man of low ethics and high body odour, but of course mansions have the longest driveways and widest lawns, so it took whole minutes - in some cases, many, many whole minutes - to deliver each paper. And evening papers weighed a ton back then.
Plus I was absent-minded. In those days my hold on the real world was always slight at best, but the combination of long walks, fresh air and lack of distraction left me helplessly vulnerable to any stray wisp of fantasy or conjecture that chose to carry me off. I would generally devote a good stretch of time to "what if" questions - what I would do if I could make myself invisible (go to Mary O'Leary's house about bathtime), or if time stopped and I was the only thing on earth left moving (take a lot of money from a bank and then go to Mary O'Leary's house) or if I could hypnotise everyone in the world (ditto) or found a magic lamp and was granted two wishes (ditto) or anything at all really. All fantasies led ultimately to Mary O'Leary.
Then I might move on to imponderables. How could we be sure that we all saw the same colours? Maybe what I see as green you see as blue. Who could actually say? And when scientists say that dogs and cats are colour-blind (or not - I could never remember which it was), how do they know? What dog is going to tell them? How do migrating birds know which one to follow? What if the lead bird just wants to be alone? And when you see two ants going in opposite directions pause to check each other out, what information exactly are they exchanging? - "Hey, nice feelers!", "Don't panic, but that kid that's watching us has got matches and lighter fluid" - and how do they know to do whatever they are doing?
And then suddenly I would realise that I couldn't remember, hadn't actually consciously experienced any of the last 47 properties I had visited, and didn't know if I had left a paper or just walked up to the door, stood for a moment like an underfunctioning automaton and turned round and walked away again.
It is not easy to describe the sense of self-disappointment that comes with reaching the end of your route and finding that there are 16 undelivered papers in your bag and you don't have the least idea - not the least idea - to whom they should have gone. I spent much of my prepubescent years first walking an enormous newspaper route, then revisiting large parts of it. Sometimes twice.
As if delivering papers seven days a week weren't enough, you also had to collect the subscription money. So at least three evenings a week you had to turn out again and try to coax some money out of your ungrateful customers. That was easily the worst part. And the worst part of the worst part was collecting from Mrs Vandermeister.
Mrs Vandermeister was 700 years old, possibly 800, and permanently attached to an aluminium walker. She was stooped, very small, forgetful, glacially slow, interestingly malodorous, practically deaf. She emerged from her house once a day to drive to the supermarket, in a car about the size of an aircraft carrier. It took her two hours to get out of her house and into the car and then another two hours to get the car out of the driveway and up the alley. Partly this was because Mrs Vandermeister could never find a gear she liked and partly because when shunting she never moved forward or backward more than a quarter of an inch at a time, and seemed only barely in touch with the necessity of occasionally turning the wheel.
Getting money from Mrs Vandermeister was a perennial nightmare. Her front door had a small window in it that provided a clear view down her hallway to her living room. If you rang the doorbell at 15-second intervals for an hour and 10 minutes, you knew that eventually she would realise someone was at the door - "Now who the heck is that?" she would shout to herself - and begin the evening-long process of getting from her chair to the front door, 25 feet away, bumping and shoving her walker before her. After about 20 minutes, she would reach the hallway and start coming towards the door at about the speed that ice melts. When eventually she came to the door, you would have an extra half-hour of convincing her that you were not a murderer.
"I'm the paperboy, Mrs Vandermeister!" you would shout at her through the little glass pane.
"Billy Bryson's my paperboy!" she would shout back at the doorknob.
"I am Billy Bryson! Look at me through the window, Mrs Vandermeister! Look up here! You can see me if you look up here, Mrs Vandermeister!"
"Billy Bryson lives three doors down!" Mrs Vandermeister would shout. "You've come to the wrong house! I don't know why you've come here!"
"Mrs Vandermeister, I'm collecting for the paper! You owe me $3 and 60 cents!'
When finally you persuaded her to haul open the door, she was always surprised to find you there - "Oh, Billy, you gave me a start!" she'd say - and then there would be another small eternity while she went off, shuffling and wobbling and humming the Alzheimer theme tune, to find her purse, a half-hour more while she came back to ask how much again, another detour to toilet or kitchen, and finally the announcement that she didn't have that much cash and I'd have to call again on a future occasion.
"You shouldn't leave it so long," she'd shout. "It's only supposed to be a dollar twenty every two weeks. You tell Billy when you see him."
At least Mrs Vandermeister had the excuse of being ancient and demented. What really maddened was being sent away by normal people, usually because they couldn't be bothered to get their purses out. The richer the people were, the more likely they were to send you away - always with a fey can-you-ever-forgive-me smile and an apology.
"No, it's all right, lady. I'm very happy to hike a mile and a quarter here through three feet of snow on the coldest night of the year and leave empty-handed because you've got some muffins in the fucking oven and your nails are drying. No problem!"
Of course I never said anything like that, but I did start levying fines. I would add 50 or 60 cents to rich people's bills and tell them that it was because the month started on a Wednesday so there was an extra half-week to account for. You could show them on their kitchen calendar how there were an extra few days at the beginning or end of the month. This always worked, especially with men if they'd had a cocktail or two, and they always had.
The other danger of rich people was their dogs. Poor people in my experience have mean dogs and know it. Rich people have mean dogs and refuse to believe it. There were thousands of dogs in those days, too, inhabiting every property - big dogs, grumpy dogs, stupid dogs, tiny nippy irritating little dogs that you positively ached to turn into a kind of living hacky-sack, dogs that wanted to smell you, dogs that wanted to sit on you, dogs that barked at everything that moved.
And then there was Dewey. Dewey was a black labrador, owned by a family on Terrace Drive called the Haldemans. Dewey was about the size of a black bear and hated me. With any other human being he was just a big slobbery bundle of softness. But Dewey wanted me dead for reasons he declined to make clear and I don't believe actually knew himself. He just took against me. The Haldemans laughingly dismissed the idea that Dewey had a mean streak and serenely ignored any suggestions that he ought to be kept tied up, as the law actually demanded. They were Republicans - Nixon Republicans - and so didn't subscribe to the notion that laws are supposed to apply to all people equally.
It took me ages to creep, breath held, up the Haldemans' front walk and up the five wide, wooden, creak-ready steps of their front porch and very, very gently set the paper down on the mat, knowing that at the moment of contact I would hear from some place close by but unseen a low, dark, threatening growl that would continue until I had withdrawn with respectful backward bows. Occasionally - just often enough to leave me permanently scarred and unnerved - Dewey would lunge, barking viciously, and I had to fly across the yard whimpering, hands held protectively over my butt, leap on my bike and pedal wildly away, crashing into fire hydrants and lamp posts and generally sustaining far worse injuries than if I had just let Dewey hold me down and gnaw on me a bit.
The only aspect worse than suffering an attack was waiting for the next one. The lone redeeming feature of life with Dewey was the rush of relief when it was all over, of knowing that I wouldn't have to encounter Dewey again for 24 hours. Airmen returning home from dangerous bombing runs will recognise the feeling.
It was in such a state of exultation one crisp and twinkly March morning that I was delivering a paper to a house half a block further on when Dewey - suddenly twice his normal size and with truly unwarranted ferocity - came for me at speed from round the side of the McManuses' house. I remember thinking, in the microsecond for reflection that was available to me, that this was very unfair. It wasn't supposed to happen like this. This was my time of bliss.
Before I could meaningfully react, Dewey bit me hard on the leg just below the left buttock, knocking me to the ground. He then dragged me around for a bit - I remember my fingers scraping through grass - and then abruptly he released me and gave a confused, playful, woofy bark and bounded back into the border shrubbery whence he had come. Irate and comprehensively dishevelled, I waddled to the road to the nearest street light and took down my pants to see the damage. My jeans were torn, and on the fleshy part of my thigh there was a small puncture and a very little blood. It didn't actually hurt very much, but it came up the next day in a wonderful purply bruise, which I showed off in the boys' bathroom at school to many appreciative viewers, including Mr Groober, the strange, mute school janitor who was almost certainly an escapee from some place with high walls and who had never appeared quite this ecstatic about anything before, and I had to go to the doctor after school and get a tetanus shot, which I didn't appreciate a whole lot, as you can imagine.
Despite the evidence of my wound, the Haldemans refused to believe that their dog had gone for me. "Dewey?" they laughed. "Dewey wouldn't harm anyone, honey. He wouldn't leave the property after dark. Why, he's afraid of his own shadow." And then they laughed again. The dog that attacked me, they assured me, was some other dog.
Just over a week later, Dewey attacked Mrs Haldeman's mother, who was visiting from California. It had her down on the ground and was about to strip her face from her skull, which would have helped my case no end, frankly. Fortunately for her, Mrs Haldeman came out just in time to save her mother and realise the shocking truth about her beloved pet. Dewey was taken away in a van and never seen again. I don't think anything has ever given me more satisfaction.
This is an edited extract from "The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid" by Bill Bryson published in The Guardian.