“Mouth Full of Rot” by Nick Manzolillo

The Doritos melt around Kyle’s tongue as he tilts the bag up, emptying the crumbs down his gullet. He’s still licking his lips when he throws the empty plastic onto the sidewalk. It’s an early summer night, and Kyle’s basking in the new coolness after how hot the afternoon was. He doesn’t see the man crawling on his hands and knees from out of the alley between a convenience store and community garden.

As Kyle pops his earbuds in and unleashes a stream of dubstep synths and bass drops, a grease-covered hand grabs the back of his ankle. There’s a fine line between seeing your average homeless person in the streets—begging for help and rattling their change cups—and one of them actually touching you. The eruption of goosebumps along Kyle’s skin causes him to reflexively jerk free from the man’s grasp. Cursing under his breath, he begins running to the bar on Amsterdam Ave where he buses tables. The homeless man, known throughout West Harlem as “The Litterbug”, looks after the running boy and moans. He then worms his way over to the empty chip bag, crumples it into a plastic ball, and shoves it into his mouth.

The people around West 140th Street provide a mixed record as to how The Litterbug came to be.  It’s generally agreed upon that he appeared during a brief strike by the city’s waste management department. Beneath the grime and pigeon feathers, his shoulder-length black hair is adorned with a dull array of rainbow-colored beads. His skin is unwashed and blurred to the point that he could be a dozen different races. He’s never been seen standing or walking; only on his hands and knees. Most people assume he’s just another beggar. 

The Litterbug eats litter. From what people can tell, he stays out of the subway stations. From time to time, somebody will toss him change. If it lands on the ground he’ll swallow it.

A group of middle-school teachers from 123rd Street saw him gnawing on a plastic milk carton on their way home and they tried offering him their lunch leftovers. He refused. They held the sandwich halves and apples out to him and he jerked his head away, his glazed eyes staring off down the street. When one of the teachers sucked down the last of her cigarette and flicked it into the road in a flash of sparks, The Litterbug sprang to life, scrambling for it, plucking it from the ground and dropping it down his throat in a single gulp. “Why?” he moaned, and the frightened teachers scattered. The Litterbug always asks why.

Between Riverside Drive and Frederick Douglass Boulevard, the streets show no sign of being cleaner than they ever have been. Maybe it’s because The Litterbug is one man, and he moves slow. Maybe it’s because people toss their garbage around faster than he can keep up. Whether or not it’s garbage collection day, he’s out there. He doesn’t pick through the black, dripping bags or fight the rats for the reeking, rotting food within, but he’s often found close to the piles of undesirable swill. On garbage mornings, if he sees something fall from one of the bags he’ll scramble to it faster than the bugs and birds.

After his shift is over, Kyle the Dorito-downer returns to find The Litterbug. His co-workers told him the rumors about how The Litterbug’s not really a person at all, but a Native American spirit from before the city came and bashed away all the nature.                   

Sweaty and a little tipsy from his post-shift drink, Kyle’s the one to say “There that fuck-boy is!” when he spots The Litterbug lurking along the padlocked fence to a community garden in the midst of spring’s bloom.

Kyle and his two work buddies have a couple bottles with them that are half full of Corona. They chug quickly before gurgling out their war cries as they launch their bottles. One shatters against the garden gates, another along the curb. A third bounces twice without breaking. The Litterbug starts moaning and weeping like he’s been beaten.

Approaching the closest trashcan, Kyle and his buddies begin digging through, pulling out whatever seems the least gross. They find chip bags and takeout containers—one of the kids tosses a hole-riddled shirt at Kyle who bats it away. The Litterbug’s on the trash like a limping dog, sinking his teeth into the filth on the ground. “Why? Why?” he begs as Kyle’s friends mimic him. They’re up to their elbows in the dumpster now, tossing junk across the curb, farther and farther away from them as if they’re trying to get The Litterbug to play fetch.

A taxi roars down the street, waking the boys from their trance of cruelty. From there, as the boys leave the moaning lunatic behind, they too become a part of the legend. 

A connection with the taunting of The Litterbug isn’t made until the third incident, when Kyle disappears from his bedroom at his grandma’s. Each of the boys’ beds is found full of fresh trash, oozing and reeking. Nobody sees Kyle or his friends again.  

Nothing is ever done. A pair of cops who like to think they’re a real part of the community find The Litterbug and question him. Of course, they get nothing out of him so they do their civic duty and toss him into a mental hospital, where he remains, forgotten. Oddly enough, immediately after The Litterbug disappears, the garbage bins start becoming twice as full. For the rest of the week, for the rest of the following summer, the streets are cleaner than they’ve ever been. Come November, however, things go back to the way they were.

Nick Manzolillo’s short fiction has appeared in over sixty publications, including Switchblade, TQR, Red Room Magazine, Grievous Angel, and The Tales To Terrify podcast. He received an MFA in Creative and Professional Writing from Western Connecticut State University. He currently lives in Manhattan with his fiancé where he spends all of his time eating chicken wings, growing out his beard and worshipping his two cats.

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