Brushing Up On Policy

Updated: Sep 29, 2019

A politician’s teeth begin to rot without cause until a prophetic old man reveals the source of the decay and offers him a choice.

  The first tooth fell out at a committee luncheon. He had noticed his left canine loosening over the last several days but thought nothing of it. Now he was staring down at a half eaten muffin with his tooth in it, lodged between a walnut and a chunk of banana. He shoved the remaining muffin into his pocket and excused himself to the restroom while the rest of the Senators continued to discuss the finer points of agricultural regulation.

   He ran into the farthest stall and picked through the muffin for his tooth. Even though the tip looked fine, the root was a jagged, blackened mess of decaying bone. He poked at the empty socket in his mouth and felt the sting of exposed nerves on the soft tissue where his tooth used to be. No one else appeared to be in the restroom so he called up his assistant.

   “Shawn, it’s Peter. I need you to call Dr. Whitaker and schedule an appointment for early tomorrow morning. Tell him the problem hasn’t cleared up and now I’ve lost a tooth… Yeah, a goddamn tooth fell out… I don’t give a shit if it’s a Sunday! He could have a cleaning with Mother Theresa for all I care, I need to see him tomorrow… Good, text me the details when he confirms.”

  He wrapped the tooth in some toilet paper and hid it in his pocket, washing his hands in the sink as he walked out of the restroom and back to his table. For the rest of the meal he spoke as little as possible, trying not to draw attention to the new gap in his famous smile.

— — —

   “Mr. Fischer, the doctor will see you now” the receptionist called out to the nearly empty waiting room. Normally she had the weekends off but decided to come in and get some work done, and perhaps catch a glimpse of the handsome Senator from Iowa.

   Peter Fischer leaned back in the dentist’s chair right as Dr. Whitaker entered the room, carrying with him an envelope with some x-rays of the Senator’s teeth that had been taken over the past few months. He wheeled an old desk chair over to the slightly reclined Mr. Fischer, sat down, pulled the transparencies out, and held them up to the fluorescent light above, cycling from the oldest to the most recent.

   Dr. Whitaker sighed in exasperation. “I don’t know what to tell you Pete. This doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. I’ve been going over these X-rays and your health history, and it isn’t lining up. You’re a fairly young man, take care of yourself, always had strong teeth, but these look as though you’ve been eating three pounds of sugar every day for the past eight months. I know the campaign trail can be tough on the gut, but have you made any significant changes to your diet recently?”

   “Nothing too bad. Aside from the occasional pitstop, I’ve been eating well,” Fischer replied. “I’ve seen more than a few of my fellow colleagues come back after doing the county fair circuit with a new spare tire around their midsection, so I’m trying to behave as best I can in between corndogs and barbecue.”

   Dr. Whitaker’s brow furrowed, the lack of a clear cause troubled him. “Well, I hate to admit this, but I’m stumped at this point. All the tests we’ve run came back negative for all the typical stuff so unfortunately we’re in the dark here. I’ll talk to some colleagues of mine and see if they’ve had anything like this come across their desks but for now let’s get you on some high-fluoride toothpaste, see if that clears some of this junk up. Also, let’s get you back next week to get fitted for a partial implant.”

   “Sounds like the best plan we have,” said Fischer as he rose from the chair and followed his dentist out of the exam room. “Can you let me know as soon as you come up with something?”

   “Will do, Senator. I’ll call you if I find anything,” answered Dr. Whitaker. He handed Fischer a prescription but before leaving the room Dr. Whitaker asked, “Oh, Pete, quick question: what did your people say about you doing that ad for my office we had discussed? With your profile lately, it’d be a big help for business.”

   Fischer turned back to the doctor. “Right, I almost forgot. Turns out it might not be a good idea for me at this point in the race, something about exposure and being more calculated about what we’re putting out there. You know how stiff-necked these marketing people are about this sort of thing.” In reality, Fischer had never wanted to do the ad so he hadn’t discussed it with his staff, but it was easier to lie to the doctor than admit the truth.

   The two men exchanged pleasantries and Senator Fischer walked to a black car waiting outside to drive him to home.

— — —

   Lying had never come naturally to Fischer. He had spent most of his life in public service committed to telling his constituents how things really were rather than giving them a skewed version to match how he knew they wanted it to be. In his early days in politics on his home town council, there were many times when he’d have to tell folks that property taxes were going up or that new roads that were promised were being delayed because of contractor disputes, but he never shied away from saying why it had to be that way, even if it meant getting into a loud altercation with an angry construction foreman on the steps of town hall or facing down mobs of irate citizens in the council chambers. Sometimes he may have stretched the truth concerning his enjoyment of a pie delivered to his office by an appreciative local, but he saw little harm in grinning through a terrible slice of blueberry. This sort of on-its-face honesty, coupled with his hometown charm, is what had been so appealing to the larger Iowa voting public when they elected him to the US Senate just a couple years into his career.

   Over the last few months though, he started to feel the pressures of federal office and the burdens it placed on him back home. When the Senate was trying to pass prison sentencing reform he was constantly having tense conversations about “going easy on murderers” with townsfolk, no matter if he was in the aisles of a grocery store or dropping off his kids at school. Fights that he’d have on the Senate floor about regulation would be rehashed over family dinners or outings with friends. The realities of public life began to weigh him down, especially if he knew the policy work he was doing wouldn’t sit well with his fellow Iowans, so he began to stretch the truth a bit to sway public opinion. At first his tactics were fairly transparent but as he honed his rhetorical skills it became easier to persuade people into believing that he was truly on their side, or even to get them to switch their position to better match his own.

   At first, Fischer figured that because these incidents were mostly in smaller circles it wouldn’t hurt to bend the facts, but as he began his reelection bid he saw just how powerful this new tool could be. Bigger crowds were coming out to see him as his grasp of the truth got looser. Local editorial boards would pen op-eds decrying his willingness to make erroneous claims, but the Senator wielded a disarming charm that he could deploy on command to assuage any worry from his fervent supporters. He could stand at the podium of his campaign rallies, flash his impeccable smile, and, to a roar of thunderous applause, deliver the facts however he wished them to be.

It was after one of these rallies that he first noticed a black line creep out from under the gum line on a few of his upper teeth.

— — —

   It had been a couple of weeks since Fischer had received his new tooth from Dr. Whitaker and it still felt strange in his mouth. Even though it looked real from the outside, he’d run his tongue over it and feel the cold, unnatural polish of the surface and metallic taste of the arms holding it in place.

   On the way to Cedar Rapids, Fischer and his staff stopped in Anamosa for the night. They went to grab a beer and prepare for the next day’s campaign stop at a small bar on main street occupied by a smattering of locals, fresh off their shifts. After a couple hours of going over talking points with his team, Fischer took a seat at the bar to be by himself for a bit before they headed out to the hotel. As he was flagging down the bartender to order he noticed a ragged older man sitting quietly by himself in the far corner of the room. In front of him, there was no drink, only a low burning candle putting a soft glow on his weathered skin. Beneath the brim of a worn hat you could see his eyes staring into the flame.

   Fischer liked to be invested in the stories of common people — a trait he adopted after watching more seasoned politicians — so he decided to consult the bartender. “Excuse me sir, what’s the deal with that man in the corner?”

The bartender looked over to the man. “Him? Yeah, he’s in here most nights. Never orders, just sits there looking at that candle. Poor guy seems lost in his head, probably comes in to stay warm. Although, the regulars tell me that he swears he can tell someone their fortune for the cost of a Busch Light, so he’s got that going for him.”

   Fischer realized the potential for a good campaign story, so he ordered a Busch Light and took it over to the man. The senator was not one to shy away from an opportunity to ingratiate himself with the public, and a little look into his election prospects from some higher power could be useful.

   “Hey there sir, how are you this evening?” Fischer inquired, but go no response. He continued on, “The guy behind the bar says that you’re a fan of Busch Light and that you’ve got a knack for divine insight. Would you care to look into my future?”

   The ragged man’s eyes never left the burning wick as he reached out to grab the beer and brought it to his lips for a long drink. He set down the bottle and spoke without moving his gaze. “Worried about what all those lies are doing to your teeth, Peter?”

    Fischer was set back on his heels. The man hadn’t even looked up to see who he was, let alone caught a glimpse inside his mouth. Only his closest advisors and Dr. Whitaker knew about his rotting teeth. “What is this? Who talked to you? Did one of my opponents feed you some bullshit story about my hygiene?”

   “No need to talk when the stench of corruption and rot is so rank in the air. Even without my words you know this to be true. The more you lie the more your teeth have decayed. These are simple truths, unlike the threads you’re entangled in. However, you still have a chance Peter, but not without consequence. I see two distinct futures for you, but only if you wish to know.”

   Fischer stared at the man in disbelief but felt a sickening doubt rising up inside himself. He couldn’t risk not knowing what this shabby old mystic was getting at. “Tell me what you mean, what are my options?”

   The man’s eyes swiftly locked onto Fischer. “I see diverging paths, each paved with both gold and brimstone. On one, you continue to lie and your aspirations succeed. You win every office you desire, but the affliction spreads throughout your bones, causing you unimaginable pain and a life of suffering. Down the other, you tell the truth and risk losing this race and ultimately your political career. However your ailment clears and you live out your days with exceptional health and good conscience. Only one path can be taken, and only once can you choose. A choice, Peter, that I must urge you to linger on before you stride forth.”

   The man took one final swig of beer, tipped his hat to Fischer, and blew out the candle on his way to the door. Senator Fischer stood silent in the dark, considering what the man had told him. He was never one to believe in the paranormal, but to have the repercussions of his actions laid out like that in such a dire manner shook him. He wondered how could the man have known about his teeth, or if he really could see Fischer’s future. An eerie, otherworldly cold hung in the air as Peter Fischer grabbed his coat and left the bar.

   All night long, alone in his hotel room, he weighed his choice.

— — —

A few days before the election, after a marathon week for the final push of the race, Fischer organized a private dinner for his staff and their families at a restaurant near campaign headquarters in Des Moines. This run had been hard fought, and even though the polling data was still a bit hazy, they all felt encouraged by their efforts and believed they had a fair shot to win. Before dinner was served, Fischer gave a speech about their trials, successes, things he learned on the trail, and told them that regardless of the outcome he was truly thankful for all their hard work. While the waiters removed the salad plates, Fischer excused himself to field a call from local reporters looking for a quote.

   As he headed back to the dining room, Fischer paused at a mirror in the hallway to adjust his tie and check if he had any food in his teeth. Smiling at his reflection, he noticed something was a bit off. He cautiously looked around to see if anyone was near, then reached into his mouth to remove his new set of partial dentures and reinserted them in their proper position between his now mostly rotten or missing upper teeth. Dr. Whitaker had made these as a temporary replacement but had informed him it would be soon that he would need full dentures, top and bottom. However, this didn’t bother Senator Fischer who figured that he would treat himself to a new set after he was reelected in the days to come.

   Peter Fischer turned and made his way back to his table, quietly whistling the melody of “Hail To The Chief” as he strode, remembering the promises of the old, ragged man.

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