In the dream Cynthia Kang wasn’t an elected official. Or if she was, her status as such was not her function because she was in the clothing of a pastry chef on the French passenger liner Latouche-Téville. The ship was lumbering through the south Atlantic. She was sitting on a stool at the end of a long metal counter, iron pots and pans overhead, making notations as she worked out the subtle nuances for her orange tartlette. It came to her she’d cut back on the butter cream and put in a dash of lemon zest to give the bite of tartness these little delicacies needed. This serving the ever-so-preening tastes of the bourgeoisie was awfully tiring, she reflected, as she instructed her kitchen crew on how to prepare the deserts.
A couple of mess boys passed by and nodded at her and she returned their greetings. One of them was a wiry Vietnamese lad named Nguyen Tat Thanh. Kang knew this was the revolutionary leader the world would one day recognize as Ho Chi Minh. But at this moment–and so far this fantasy seemed to be progressing in a linear fashion– he was simply known by his birth name and went about his duties in an orderly and efficient way. Indeed, in his off hours she’d been teaching the eager Thanh–or Ba, as he simply referred to himself among the whites–how to make some of these sweets. Later, she knew from several of the biographies she’d read, including one by David Halberstam titled Ho, the young patriot would work for a famous pastry chef named Escoffier at the Carlton Hotel in England. Where he would also join the Lao Dang Hoi Nagai, the Overseas Workers association. From there he would journey to France, the heart of the colonial power holding his country in thrall in 1917, during World War I.
“Why don’t you join me for a drink?” Lanny Budd asked her in French. She’d left the kitchen and was up on the aft part of the deck to watch the sea churn by them. They were somewhere off the coast of Nigeria. Incongruously, Budd was dressed in a suit not of this era. It was early-’60s streamline, like what Peter Gunn wore in that show her father loved to watch. She’d bought her dad, the pastor, the DVD set of the half-hour black-and-white episodes a couple of Christmases ago. Lanny Budd was a creation of the muckraker novelist Upton Sinclair.
“Not right now,” but she caught herself, and then said, “Aw, why not?” What was the point of imagining this scenario if she didn’t go with the flow?
He produced a flask and, smiling, tipped it toward the heavens with a toast “to the toilers and the shirtmakers.” He had a sip and handed it to her, first wiping the spout with the hem of his jacket. ”
She sampled some of his cold whiskey, and said, “Smooth. Sinclair was a teetotaler, you know.” She didn’t think Budd drank in any of those damn books. She’d maybe read two of them, but couldn’t recall.
He shrugged. “I’m here and he’s not.” He had another swig and leaned on the railing next to her, looking out on the waves as well. “Quite a world to win, isn’t it?”
“It’s sad to admit I’m just a reformer at best. And that’s on a good week, with those further and further apart.”