The Emigrants Club

“I WILL FIND opportunity in the low-cost color-TV factories of South Korea,” drawls Paul Dupree. The food stains on his Stetson nearly match those on his pinstripe suit.

During each meeting of the Emigrants Club, Miss Clausen has her students restate their goals; it is one of her motivational techniques. Hinting that she practices a cosmopolitan erotic repertoire, but only with the very rich, is another.

“I will make dangerous gaffes in an Islamic republic enjoying robust economic expansion—Saudi Arabia,” declares Drew Whittier. Miss Clausen discourages a too optimistic view of getting a fresh start.

She coils the cord of the slide projector and wheels it to the closet, storing it near the big laser menorah. Both belong to the new Reform synagogue that provides her classroom. Earlier in the evening Miss Clausen has shown slides that several class members believe are identical to those she showed the previous week or the week before that. Her illustrated lectures seem always to feature burgeoning office towers, sparks scattered by robot automobilewelders, a public-health nurse in a crisp white tunic inoculating a radiant baby. Presumably it is a baby who will grow up to find no job welding Toyota trucks in Dakar or Recife or Seoul or whatever thriving industrial platform has provided the photographs for that week. Perhaps the baby will find something clerical in one of the new office buildings.

“My demure romantic gestures will be misinterpreted as improper sexual aggression by a troubled Bengali. Repelled, my suitor will run amok with an indigenous edged weapon.” Eleanor Matuszak is apprehensive about international dating. Simon Gurney, befuddled by any interaction of the sexes, sympathizes.

“In Djakarta,” he says, “I’ll be unable to spot the homosexuals simply by posture or gesture or inflection. Is that easy saunter gay, or merely Indonesian? Not that there’s anything wrong with being gay. Or Javanese.”Simon has no wish to offend, at home or abroad.

Hearing her students announce not their goals but their fears, Miss Clausen directs the class in a stress-confronting exercise. “And if you all work hard,” she says, glancing at a typed five-by-seven card, “during the break there’ll be frosty glasses of Coors beer. Coors—as cool and refreshing as soaking your feet in a Colorado mountain stream.”

THE MEMBERS OF the Emigrants Club pair off for a familiar drill. Simon finds himself teamed with Carlie Johnson. He begins.

“How do you do, Mrs. Johnson. Do I pronounce it properly? Ms. Jownseen? Yomslum? Schlongstroop? Ha ha! Forgive me if I misspeak your odd and silly appellation, pink-girl!”

Carlie clenches the edge of her chair but does not raise her voice. Then she tests Simon.

“Hey, stupid, what has become of your foreskin? Was it perhaps eaten by a dog you allow in your house as a companion? Did you grow so stupid by receiving many blows to the head with a baseball stick in your overly complicated national game? How slow-moving it is! See how I yawn merely imagining a single tedious inning!”

Simon endures the onslaught with good grace. “In my new country,” he confides to Carlie, “I’m afraid I’ll be regarded as a big white oaf. ‘Hey, Crisco!’ little kids will shout.”

She smiles sympathetically. Carlie’s husband is already working at a brokerage house in Bangkok. She is attending the Emigrants Club to prepare to join him there. Carlie tells Simon that she can’t shake the feeling that her husband has taken up with another woman.

“An American?’ he asks.

“Yeah. As familiar and reassuring as white toast.”

“But maybe a Thai?”

“It’s possible. Perhaps he’s begun an entire second family, an elaborate bigamous deception. I don’t know his daily routine anymore. Everything will seem normal to me. Ten years down the road I’ll learn the humiliating truth from a Thai tabloid I’m only half able to read. I’ll be stuck with a decade of happy Asian memories that I’ll have to renovate into treachery and despair. How exhausting!”

Miss Clausen reminds her students that they’ll find networks of support in their new countries.

“There’s an Americatown in Rangoon,” she says, “and a thriving Bostonette in Chad. Some former members of this very class work in the Pequeño Baltimore district on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, redolent with the homey aroma of frying bologna. But I wouldn’t count on their lending you any money.”

Simon expects to begin his new life in such a neighborhood, where at year’s end his dry cleaner—God knows what carcinogenic solvents will be splashed onto his sweaters—will distribute a calendar featuring a bikiniclad Cybill Shepherd in cowboy hat and spurs, proffering big chunks of raw beef. Every morning, yearning for alltalk radio, Simon will enjoy a reassuring look at this numinous beauty in her native costume, reorienting himself in a world where he’s confused by even the street games of children. Not to grasp the difference between garga and tip-top-pop: this makes Simon less than a child. He’ll be a proto-human, an ape-man with a sample case full of Formica chips.

Eventually he will learn a few hundred words of Indonesian—first the vocabulary of kitchen remodeling, next simple directions, then elementary human desires. Later he will send for Connie and little Simon and hope that his life will not include a steady diet of silent indictment. Will Connie go cheerfully mall-less? Will the boy enjoy a land where skateboards are pulled by bullocks over rutted, muddy paths?

SIMON’S DOUBTS ARE allayed by his feeling a new sense of purpose. The Emigrants Club offers him a chance to give something back to America—his absence. By leaving the country he’ll create badly needed empty space, opening up a job, clearing a slot at the parking garage, shortening a movie line. He’ll send home valuable foreign exchange. He’ll be an unofficial ambassador, proclaiming his homeland’s freedom of choice—Big Mac or Whopper, matte finish or glossy, styling mousse or styling gel. What an inspiring American symbol he’ll be each Fourth of July, scooping up slow rollers hit to second on impromptu softball diamonds scattered with chattering monkeys and unexploded bomblets.

Not that he suffers in America; Simon makes a comfortable living. But the commute is getting impossible. The drive runs him three hours each way, crawling past fingers of reinforcing rods poking through eroding concrete abutments. Each swoop through an underpass brings the hazardous clang of rusty bolts raining onto the car roof from the span above. He has fallen into dangerous driving habits. A little battery-powered television peers up at him from the passenger seat. A bracket clamped to the steering wheel spreadeagles a magazine at eye level. A pot of chili simmers on a hot plate plugged into the dashboard. Sooner or later, distracted by a bon mot from Bryant Gumbel or a lively idea in Newsweek, Simon will rear-end a van filled with nuns and puppies.

One day he happened across a copy of Coors Magazine. Simon paged past the article on Aztec breweries, past the paparazzi picture of George Bush sipping a Light in Tegucigalpa, past the editorial cartoons, each illustrating a variation on the caption “First they raise the drinking age, then they round everybody up and kill them.” He stopped at the story about the Emigrants Clubs that Coors, in partnership with labor and government, was establishing across the country. Language lessons, visas, anticommunism seminars—everything required to make a better life would be provided. “Just as the lure of opportunity brought our forebears to these shores—not Colorado itself, but the more coastal parts of America—” wrote a Coors vice-president, “so that same spirit now beckons from the data-processing plantations of Kuala Lumpur, where you can work up a heck of a thirst.”

The break is almost over. Standing at the bulletin board, Simon examines the snapshots that club graduates have sent from their new homes. An elderly couple squint into the sun in front of Dubrovnik’s leading center for kitchenremodeling, a trade that has come to be dominated around the world by American arrivals. The Duke of Formica peeks out the door of an Accra warehouse. A florid-faced, fiftyish woman smiles admiringly at a huge likeness of herself painted on a Kingston billboard beneath the single orange word “REFRIGERATORAMA!” Simon contemplates a new land, a new life, a dual stainless-steel sink with built-in garbage disposal.

Maybe I could just have an affair, he thinks. It’s nearly emigration, but without the air travel. I’d still get the thrill of discovery, the nursing of vain hopes, the confusion, the chance to unsettle the lives of people I love.

Simon looks over at Carlie Johnson. Next week, after class, I’ll absolutely invite her for coffee.