Sinking Ship  by Allen Forrest

Sinking Ship by Allen Forrest

It's Free
Jewel Beth Davis

11:30 a.m. Saturday. Walmart. Sanford, Maine.

“Would you like a free sample of OsCal chewable Calcium with D? It’s delicious!”

That’s me. I start with the script provided by the promotional agency.

“No, thank you.”

That’s the shopper. They all look exactly alike to me: faded, worn, middle-aged women who have worked too hard for too little. They shepherd cantankerous small children or browse alongside their husbands, boyfriends, girlfriends, or glum teenage knockoffs. The women are glum, too, but in a different way.

I change my tactics. “I have a free sample of chewable OsCal calcium for you.”

“I’m all set.”

You’re not all set. You’re not taking calcium supplements, and you’re carrying a widow’s hump the size of a boulder.

“Would you like to sample OsCal chewable Calcium? It tastes like lemon. It’s yummy.”

I’m such a whore; I’ll say anything to get people to try it.


“It’s free, for God’s sake,” I plead.

“Oh, all right.” The customer grabs the foil packet from my hand.

“OsCal chewables! They’re free!”

“Oh, sure,” another woman responds. Her voice is resigned. I imagine her using the same tone when she accedes to her husband’s request for sex. But I’m excited because she’s one of my few takers.

“So, how was it?”

“It’s all right,” she concedes as she chews the pasty concoction. I know it’s pasty because I sampled it a few minutes earlier.

Shoppers fly by me pushing carts or riding electric buggies. They hope to sidestep my sales patter by avoiding eye contact, so I get aggressive, reaching my arm into their personal space.

“You have to take your calcium. You might as well chew it.” I say this in my bossy, funny voice. It works.

“Oh, okay,” one woman replies. “You’re right.”

Several women laugh and stop to receive my communion offering.

A middle-aged lady with a melting face is reading the package description. “Light lemon chiffon! Oh, boy!” she teases. We both know OsCal is trying to put one over on her.

The men want no part of this calcium giveaway. Maybe they’re thinking of a suppository rather than a supplement. Maybe they hear me say, “Would you like a calcium supp—” and their eyes glaze over, and they don’t hear anything else. Either way, they shun me like a lapsed Amish in Pennsylvania.

I’m careful to sift through the recycled customers as they return down my aisle and pass my shaky card table.

What am I doing here? Why must I still pimp products at this age? I’m supposed to be dignified. I’m supposed to receive some respect for the accomplishments listed in my resume. Fat chance. “On the side,” I perform professionally, am a juried Artist in Education doing arts residencies in the schools for the state arts council, started my own classical theatre touring company, and received countless grants and awards for my theatre work. At least I’m not waitressing or bartending. After twenty years of serving food and drinks to the public, this seems like a step up, albeit a chimerical one.

Why am I here? The short answer is I’m a teacher – an adjunct professor. For those who don’t know, an adjunct is a college professor hired per class by individual contracts. I teach five to six courses per semester compared to my full-time colleagues who teach three or—at the most—four. Being an adjunct is not an easy path to follow, although it does allow a great deal of freedom: freedom from most faculty and departmental meetings, freedom from office hours, freedom from spending my entire day at the college. It’s a bit like fast food and drive-through banking; you teach and go. Hit and run. If my students want to speak with me, they call my cell, email, or set up a meeting.

But adjuncts have other freedoms too: freedom from equitable pay and a living wage, freedom from medical and dental coverage, freedom from paid vacation time, freedom from camaraderie with department colleagues, freedom from being guaranteed courses every semester, from being paid whether or not the courses run, and therefore, not knowing if you will be free to eat each semester. Perhaps most importantly, you are free to be treated without respect and appreciation from the authorities in administration who need only say one word and you won’t be rehired next semester.

Many times, in many ways, my students tell me how much I mean to them, sometimes with bags of dark chocolate when the word gets out about my weakness. Sometimes it’s with a doll from the Philippines that has no face. Sometimes it’s just a simple note from one of the older students in my women’s literature class, written on a white thank you card with red and pink sparkly foam stars on it. It’s not a new house or a Bahamas vacation but it’s important to me. I keep these notes to remind myself of my worth, because it’s very hard to remember when you have to hawk OsCal and Citrucel to cover basic expenses. I haven’t taken a vacation in almost nine years.

I won’t say my family isn’t proud of me, of the work I do teaching and my performances on the stage, but because I don’t receive a salary or benefits, because I don’t have an office with my name on the door, because I’m not married, don’t have children, or own a home, there’s a sense from my family that I carry an aura of illegitimacy. Without speaking the words, they send the message that I am the F-word (Failure), not “Successful.” I know my mother felt that way. Still, I am happy with how I spend my time, my life...for the most part.


I almost escaped this day of product pimping at WalMart, my least favorite store, because the “Greeter” never showed up, and the store manager couldn’t find the “palette” with necessary supplies for my OsCal/Citrucel promotion. Definition of Greeter: person from promotional agency hired to organize the event in the store, has the supplies or equipment the agency specifically told me not to bring. The definition of Palette: will become clear soon.

After waiting a half hour, I phone the emergency number in the Models Manual. I am not a model. Models wear pretty clothes, not khakis and sensible shoes with a paper apron that pulls the entire ensemble together. It takes Cheryl, the emergency contact person, an hour to get back to me. By that time, I’ve left the store and am back in my dented but loved Isuzu Oasis midnight green van, just getting on the road to drive home. My escape is almost complete, and I can feel the relief spreading out to my extremities. The parking lot is filled to bursting with minivans and SUVs emptying out or gathering in the shoppers in their blue jean and white tee shirt uniforms. It’s raining and people are holding newspapers over their heads for protection. I’m at the light, about to take a right out of the Walmart lot when my cell phone plays its Latin samba ringtone. I swear, I curse, I rail at the heavens…but I answer it. It’s Cheryl, of course, calling when it’s too late. I explain the situation to Cheryl in a tone of incipient hysteria, rattling off my inventory of complaints. “The Greeter never showed. None of the other promotional models were there. The store manager didn’t know where the Get Started materials were. She hadn’t seen or heard about anyone else from the Get Started program. No one else signed in to the log. I had no table and no cooler for the milk or ice for the Citrucel Shakes. No OsCal samples. Nothing. I waited and waited and I didn’t know what to do so I left. I’ve wasted and hour and a half of my time including driving.”

“Oh, dear,” Cheryl responds sympathetically. ”Well, I hope you haven’t driven too far. You’ll have to go back to get the manager to sign the report form so you can get paid for your time.” She’s on her cell, and I hear her kids screaming in the car all the way from Ohio.

Damn! So I turn my van around and head back into Wally World to get the required signature. There, my luck runs out. I approach the store manager with pen and report form in hand, anticipating my release from this promotional hell.

“Oh. It’s you,” she intones darkly. The manager is an over-processed blonde in her late thirties whose hair looks as if it will shatter if you touch it. She’s tough, unemotional, and unsympathetic, which is necessary in this crazy battlefield known as Walmart. She is the authority figure, the General on duty. I half expect her to be wearing fatigues instead of the red polyester pinney over blue jeans and blue Henley shirt. She eyes me with contempt that can only come from someone in a position of authority in a large discount store. “I thought you left. I paged you twice on the loudspeaker,“ she accuses. “I found your palette and supplies.”

Oh goody. Oh joy, I think.

Her expression dos not change. Her face is stony. She’s expecting an explanation for my having been AWOL.

“Great!” I say aloud. “I’m thrilled.” My smile may be a little stiff but I smile. I offer no explanation other than, “I didn’t hear the page. How did you call for me? You didn’t know my name. “

That lowers her guns a bit. The manager mumbles something that sounds like, ”Called for promotional girl...get started...palette.”

“Ohhhhh, no wonder,” I say sweetly. “I never would have recognized you were paging me from that.”

She leads me back into the high-ceilinged warehouse, the equivalent of the Cathedral for the Religious Order of the Buy/Sell. She assigns me one of her toadies, who helps me carry all the materials to the front. So there I am, stuck all day in a Walmart in Sanford, the Maine equivalent of Marryyoursister Hollow. I discover that a palette is a red, shrink-wrapped, oversized cardboard box with smaller boxes within representing the different product promotions. The Walmart folks even provide me with a card table and chair so logically, I can’t fault them for finding my stuff prior to my escape but I do.

My card table and chair are assigned a prominent spot in the middle of a large aisle near the pharmacy, next to a Prilosec display and plastic humidifiers. The Citrucel and the Oscal products are in aisles perpendicular to my display. I’m the only promotional model in the store, and I feel silly in the middle of this aisle, like an afterthought that is perpetually tangential. I feel as if I’m the one on display, that I’m the product.

The atmosphere surrounding me is loud, brightly lit and fast moving. The colors are all primary colors. It’s a sense-assaulting atmosphere. You will not get out of here without buying something. This store takes no prisoners.

The Walmart people are taking good care of me. Perhaps had I annoyed them more, they wouldn’t be, and I would be gone. I should have clarified my goal.

I speak to lots of nurses today. One soft, marshmallow-shaped woman tells me about her patients’ noncompliance when it comes to taking their calcium. I love the fact that she uses the term “noncompliance” with me. It makes me feel as if I’m one of them. Then I zone out, wondering why so many nurses are overweight. Nurse Marshmallow is now very involved in this conversation so I snap out of my reverie.

“They refuse to take them. The size of those twelve-hundred milligram calcium horse pills makes them gag,” she says.

I know. I take one every day.

“They fight with me in the hospital and then throw the damn things out as soon as they get home.” She chuckles. I don’t chuckle because bone density is serious to me. I watched my mother go from a straight, strong, five foot six woman to a bent question mark of under five feet. No one told my mother what she should do to keep her bones strong and straight. Probably because there was no awareness of women’s health issues until the nineties, and by then, it was too late.

“Well,” I respond, smiling, breathless to impart important information, “they won’t have to gag these down because they’re chewable.” I neglect to mention how the two huge, chalky horse pills made me queasy an hour ago.

Finally, Nurse Marshmallow asks, “But do they have Vitamin D for absorption?”

“Yes, they do indeed. Here it is, right on the packet. ‘OsCal with Vitamin D for Absorption.’”

She takes the free sample and moves on.

I continue to ring out my message in a happy bell tone. I’m trying to enjoy myself and “stay in the present” as my yoga teachers advise, but my good humor is flagging. What was I doing here? You mean, on a Saturday, after working all week? I started teaching again in January and won’t receive my first paycheck until the end of February. All the schools must think this is disposable money rather than the survival fund it really is.


I have an hour and a half to go. I start giving out two and three packets to each shopper because I know I’ll never give out all 300 by my release time at four p.m. I need to put the number of packets I distributed on my report form. I think about lying but can’t. I think about strewing them in the aisles like flinging rice or rose petals at a wedding but I don’t do that either.

My thoughts drift back to the colleges where I teach. I teach in three schools in three different states, and the pay schedule is the same in each: only four paychecks per semester. I guess that’s all they feel we deserve as adjuncts, along with the pittance pay rates. As an adjunct, I am paid anywhere from $1100 to $2800 per course, depending on the school’s proximity to Boston. If I teach five courses every semester including summer, which is a lot, then I’ll average about $28,000 a year with no benefits. If a school decides not to offer me a course in a semester, no matter how many years I’ve been working for them, they can do so with no explanation. They are not required by law to treat adjuncts with decency. I wonder if parents realize that in most schools, adjuncts teach their children anywhere from thirty to ninety-five percent of the time, averaging about seventy percent, and that when a full-time position does open, those adjuncts who are good enough to carry the preponderance of the teaching load are usually not hired. I wonder if students and parents realize how their college teachers are treated? I wonder if they’d care. I feel so underappreciated.

“Don’t let them wipe their hands off on you,” my mother would warn me every time I’d go on a date.

Hey, Ma, they’re doing it.

Toward the end of my shift, a sweet wrinkly lady named Gert stops at my table and introduces herself and her husband. I don’t realize immediately she has an agenda. About the OsCal chewables, she says, “We’ll try it, and if we don’t like it, we’ll come back to tell you. And if we do like it, we’ll know exactly where to find them.” Gert then proceeds to show me her black-and-white wedding photo she carries with her. She and Bill have been married fifty-two years, since 1946, the same year my parents married but with less success. A brief concern flits across my mind. Why is she showing the OsCal Lady her wedding photo?

“Gert is my better half,” her husband, Bill, tells me quietly, smiling. Then Gert leaves and returns three times to slip me three Jehovah’s Witness tracts that she hopes I will read in my quiet moments in Walmart. I keep smiling beatifically at her because I decide I shouldn’t argue religion when modeling. She glances at my nametag that says JEWEL in large black letters.

“Carol,” she says to me, “you are beautiful inside and out.” She moves on and returns a moment later, slipping me one last booklet on Marriage and The Family. “You know that? Inside and out, Carol.”

In many ways, I do.

Jewel Beth Davis is a writer and theater artist who lives in Rollinsford, New Hampshire. She is a Professor of Writing and Theater at NHTI-Concord Community College. She earned an MFA in Writing at Vermont College of Fine Arts, in addition to her theatre degrees. Her creative nonfiction and fiction has been published in twenty-eight literary magazines including Entelechy International and Diverse Voices Quarterly, which nominated her story for Dzanc’s Best of the Web 2011. She is now published in the anthology of the Writers Guild of Iowa State University, on sale at Amazon. She has just completed her first novel, "Sadie and Irving Fix the World."