It was cold, standing at the ship’s rail that early on a September morning, without a hat. Ray’s annoyance at having left his wool cap in his cabin only added to his general peevishness about all things Jackson Oakley.
“Puker,” he said to no one in particular, as the smaller boat approached their ship.
This story is excerpted from Nancy Lord’s pH: A Novel (WestWinds Press, 2017) and is reprinted here by permission of the author.
When marine biologist Ray Berringer and his student crew embark on an oceanographic cruise in the Gulf of Alaska, the waters are troubled in more ways than one. Ray’s co-leader, the famed chemist Jackson Oakley, is abandoning ship just as the ocean’s decreasing pH levels are becoming a major concern for marine life. Helen, a grad student of Iñupiat (Eskimo) heritage, is suddenly left in charge of the cruise’s chemistry work. Annabel, an environmental artist along to help interpret research for the public, “does her own thing.” Back ashore, corrosion extends to the state university, and Ray’s “pteropod gang” finds itself collaborating on more than science.
“Huh?” Colin, as usual, stood attentively close—too close—as though mother-of-pearl wisdom would fall from Ray’s hard mouth and he would be there to catch it.
“Puker boat. You know, what they call those sport boats that take tourists out fishing, and everyone spends the whole trip puking over the side.” He gave the gangly young man with watery eyes a sort-of grin, as if to say: Not like us, serious seagoers doing serious work, nothing so trivial as slapping around for sport.
He was trying as much as he could to make the best of a bad situation.
He and the others who had roused for the transfer watched as the boat, its white cabin roof bristling with an array of fishing rods, slowed. The opening into the Gulf of Alaska was righteously calm, with just the rise and fall of its oceanic swell. The mainland behind them formed a dark line like a charcoal smudge between the blue-green sea and paler sky. A couple of gulls, trailing the puker boat, flapped sullenly.
Their captain, up on the bridge wing, faced the ship into the swells as the smaller vessel jockeyed to its side. On the boat’s bow, a man in clean yellow fishing bibs dangled a pink buoy over the side to protect the precious puker boat from smacking. Yellow, pink, white fiberglass—it was all very Easter-egg bright on a blue morning.
Ray avoided looking at Oakley, who was giving some final instructions, presumably, to Helen, Oakley’s star student. Ray was trying to mitigate his anger with relief. While on the one hand, Oakley’s abandoning ship and his duties with the chemical oceanography part of their research was unforgivable, the man would be gone. As his daughter Aurora might have said about a school bully, “good riddance to bad rubbish.”
The two vessels came together with barely a bump: a sea louse nudging the side of a salmon. Oakley’s duffel was pitched through the open gate, and then Oakley himself stepped through, down onto the smaller boat’s bow. The vessels separated, and Captain Billy tooted his horn. Oakley, heading for the cabin, raised his hand in a gesture that was somewhere between a Marine’s salute and a queen’s wristy wave.
The last thing Ray saw as the other boat turned toward port and sped up was someone reaching out of the cabin to hand Oakley a bottle of beer. Or at least Ray chose to believe it was a bottle of beer. It wasn’t orange juice. He resisted the temptation to perform his own good-bye wave, which would have been a middle-finger salute.
“Well, that sucks.”
Colin again. Ray wasn’t sure how much Colin or any of the other students knew about what had transpired in the last few hours, less than a day out on their weeklong cruise. The official story what he and Oakley had announced in the galley was that Professor Oakley had been called back to the university. They’d assured the eight students that nothing would be disrupted. Oakley had arranged for a boat owned by a friend to pick him up so they wouldn’t lose research time returning to port. Helen, who’d been on several cruises already and knew the sampling protocols, would take over responsibility for the chemistry work. Alex, of course, was still overseeing the wet lab. They’d be a little short-handed, but everyone would chip in.
And they would. In his nine years of co-leading the University of the North’s twice-yearly research cruises on the Gulf of Alaska, Ray had never had a problem with student slouches. They might occasionally pause to vomit over the side in rocky seas—it did happen—but nothing would keep his team from filling their bottles, netting their specimens, counting their copepods, getting the work done. Joyfully.
In Ray’s opinion, nothing would be lost by losing Oakley. Nothing they couldn’t do without.
“We’ll make the best of it,” he said to Colin.
If things were a little more complicated, and perhaps more personal, than the official explanation—well, things always were, weren’t they?
For years, Ray and others in the School of Ocean Sciences had been advocating for more attention to ocean acidification. With more coastline than the rest of the United States put together, it only made sense that Alaska institutions should lead the science. Not just in understanding what happens to ocean chemistry as the ocean absorbs carbon dioxide from the overloaded atmosphere, but across all the scientific disciplines. Biology, certainly—you can’t change ocean chemistry without affecting what lives in the ocean. Even physics is affected by chemistry; pH influences how sound travels underwater. So when the university president expressed an interest and came up with money to fund an office dedicated to the subject, Ray and his colleagues were thrilled—or as thrilled as a bunch of science nerds could be. The next thing they knew, the president was bragging about the “top-notch” chemist he’d recruited to head the new office.
That would be Jackson Oakley, the man from Texas. The press release that went out praised his “pioneering work in developing calibration instruments for measuring ocean pH.”
Ray liked to think that he was open-minded, liberal in the best sense of the word, but he couldn’t help it if his 36 years in Alaska had put him off Texans: their clichéd but ubiquitous cowboy boots, their syrupy drawls. If oil development had, admittedly, been good for the state’s finances, it had exacted enormous costs on the environment and social fabric. Many perfectly nice Texans must have come north with the industry; he just hadn’t known any. In any case, his prejudice was not something he generally shared. Only his wife, the eye-rolling Nelda, ever had to listen to him.
It had been just over a year since Dr. Jackson Oakley—“Oakley” like the tree, Ray always thought—came to campus, and Ray still wasn’t sure what he did in the new Office of Ocean Acidification Science. The man rarely had anything to say in meetings when the departments came together, instead seeming preoccupied with his laptop or tablet or phone, scrolling and tapping. He was younger than most of the professors—the aging boomers, like Ray, who had started at the university during its own boom time, when oil money had first gushed loose. He wore nicer clothes—shirts with collars, lambswool sweaters. (Ray only knew about the lambswool because Nelda had pointed it out, perhaps admiringly.) He had a headful of beach boy hair and cheeks that were always smooth and shiny, the proverbial baby’s bottom, as though he’d not only shaved within the hour but then rubbed in some kind of lotion. Ray had noticed that Oakley smelled like coconuts, confirming, for him, the lotion theory.
In the elapsed year, Oakley had not, to Ray’s knowledge, spoken out about the dangers of ocean acidification.
Ray had made overtures, on several levels. He’d shown Oakley a few of his pteropod photos and offered them for any publications or posters the new office might produce. He told him about the farmer’s market and the ice museum, testing his interest in local attractions. He asked if he liked winter sports, and Oakley said he was a skier, which Ray misunderstood as cross-country (understandably, he thought, since that was what people did in Fairbanks, on the many trails) until he was corrected. “My former wife and I had a place in Park City, but now I go to Banff,” Oakley said, which is how Ray learned that Oakley was accustomed to travel and resorts and had, in addition, apparently come to the campus in an unmarried state. Oakley did not ask Ray about himself or his work.
The students seemed to like him well enough. The thesis students said he was smart and that he texted them his comments, very modernly. An older chemistry professor had retired, and no one was sorry to see someone more up-to-date take over his advising.
When Ray complained to a colleague that Oakley seemed “smug,” the colleague said, “That’s because he knows he’s brilliant.”
Now, as their ship resumed its course, they all moved back inside. Ray found himself following Helen, the grad student who worked most closely with Oakley and now was left with his responsibilities. The two men had easily agreed on her assignment. Aside from having previous cruise experience, Helen was the epitome of a responsible woman, given to getting the work done without a lot of noise about the fact that she was getting it done. She was also an Alaska Native—part-Iñupiat—and everyone these days was very big on diversity. Ray said to her now, “You can expect a little extra in your pay envelope for this week.”
She gave him a confused, brow-lowered look. Pay envelope?
“I’m joking!” Why, Ray wondered, did he always have to explain his jokes? There was, of course, no pay envelope. There was not even any automatic deposit. The students on the cruise were all volunteers. There were benefits to them, of course. The experiments they conducted, the data they collected—these were for their studies, their theses and dissertations. The cruises went on their vitae. If they worked hard, they also had a great time together. In any case, every May and September, there was never a problem choosing a crew from among eager applicants.
This time, the job of assembling the student crew had fallen completely to Ray, without complaint. He’d been a little slow, perhaps, to realize that Oakley, his putative co-leader, had basically ceded him all the work of preparing for the cruise. And Ray had done it, because it was easier to do it himself than to try to work with Oakley, who only became more distant and distracted every time Ray tried to talk to him. “Sure, sure,” Oakley always said. “That’ll be fine.”
Then, when the rest of them made the long drive to the coast in a couple of vans, Oakley had chosen to fly. “To save time,” he said. That was the beginning of Ray’s awareness that Oakley was not going to have time—to make time—for a week on the water, away from his phone and whatever else he deemed more important than data collection and mentoring students. Oakley had apparently thought that he’d have constant satellite communication, and when he learned, not long after they’d gotten underway, that that was not the case, he told Ray he was leaving. He had already called, while he could still reach him on the marine radio, an old friend with a boat. “A fanatical fisherman,” he told Ray. “He works now for Shell in their offshore operations. Lucky I could reach him.”
“I feel very confident leaving everything in your capable hands,” Oakley had said, with false flattery. “And Helen’s. She’ll do a better job than I ever could.” The false modesty bothered Ray only a trace less than the false flattery.
There was no use arguing with him. Ray could only think about the government grants, the ones that included their names and credentials as co-leaders and spoke to the ways they assured best practices in all the data collection and analysis, the strict adherence to protocols, and the importance of consistency and continuity year to year with the time series. Ray had written into the narrative whole paragraphs about the significance of ocean acidification and the need to track ocean chemistry and understand what that change might mean in the cold, biologically-rich waters off Alaska. This year’s grants had specifically emphasized student mentoring and all the benefits that students would receive from spending a week with experts in their fields. And now they would have just the poor sucker zooplankton guy.
On top of that, this was the cruise on which he’d decided to bring his daughter, because he hoped she might discover, before she became an indifferent teenager, a love for science—or at least the ocean. He had hoped to spend some time with her.
What was more important than the research cruise? He had asked Oakley this, but Oakley had only shaken his head. The implication was: Everything about me is important, and this is only a boat trip.
Ray looked at his watch. They were nearly on schedule, not far from their first station.
The image of Oakley reaching for that beer was really bothering him. There was a reason they jokingly referred to research cruises as “Seahab.” Ray preferred to think of them as “cleansings,” as he preferred to think of himself as a social drinker, not an alcoholic, although his wife might disagree. Anyone might get headaches when stopping a regular habit; it happened with coffee drinkers, too. And only once on a previous cruise had he even thought about looking for a bottle of vanilla in the ship’s pantry. If his hands shook, it was probably from drinking more coffee than usual. The students, with their youthful, small-fingered competence, easily changed the chlorophyll filters in the lab and only kidded him about his inability to work with tweezers.
Still, it was hard not to want that beer. Or at least to want Oakley not to have it.
Nancy Lord’s work is informed by a deep connection to the landscape and cultures of coastal Alaska and northern communities. She served as the Alaska Writer Laureate from 2008-2010 and is the author of ten books of nonfiction, fiction, and memoir including most recently pH: A Novel.