Elizabeth, New Jersey
April 17, 1975
It was just after midnight in birthing room 4C and Dr. Sherman, the mustached obstetrician presiding over the delivery, was sweating lightly into his cotton underwear, holding out his hands like a beggar, ready to receive the imminent cranium.
Without warning, the room was plunged into total darkness.
Though he had been delivering babies for more than thirty years now, Dr. Sherman was so taken aback by this complete loss of vision that he briefly considered, and then rejected, the possibility of his own death. Desperate to get his bearings, he wheeled around, trying to locate the sans serif glow of the emergency exit sign across the hall, but this too had gone dark.
“Doctor?” the nurse called next to him.
“The exit!” he hissed into the darkness.
All through the hospital, a wash of panic spread over staff and patients alike as life support machines failed and surgeons were left holding beating hearts in pitch-black operating theaters. None of the backup systems — the two generators in the basement, the giant, deep- cycle batteries outside the ICU, usually so reliable in blackouts such as this one — appeared to be working. It was a catastrophe in the making. Electricity had quite simply vanished.
In birthing room 4C, Dr. Sherman was jolted into action by Charlene, the expectant mother, who gave a single, visceral cry that let everyone know, in no uncertain terms, that the baby was still coming. Maybe the baby had already come, under shroud of darkness. Dr. Sherman instinctively reached down and, sure enough, felt the conical crown of the baby’s skull emerging from his mother’s vagina. He guided this invisible head with the tips of his ten fingers, pulling, gathering, turning so that the head and neck were once again square with the baby’s shoulders, which still lingered in Charlene’s birth canal.
He did this pulling, gathering, turning without seeing, with only the memory infused in the synapses of his cortex, and his blindness was a fragile kind of sleep.
As he shepherded the child from its wet, coiled womb into a new kind of darkness, Dr. Sherman heard a distinct clicking sound. At first he thought the sound was coming from the birth canal, but then he located the clicking as coming from just behind him, over his right shoulder. Suddenly his vision was bathed in a syrupy yellow light. The father of the newborn, Kermin Radmanovic, who had earlier brought a transceiver radio and a telegraph key into the birthing room in order to announce his child’s arrival to the world, was waving a pocket flashlight wrapped in tinfoil at the space between his wife’s legs.
“He is okay?” asked Kermin. “He comes now?” His accent was vaguely Slavic, the fins of his words dipping their uvular tips into a smooth lake of water.
Everyone looked to where the beam of light had peeled back the darkness. There glistened the torpedo-like head of the child, covered in a white, waxen substance. The sight encouraged Dr. Sherman back into action. He first slipped his finger beneath the child’s chin, but when he felt no sign of the umbilical cord wrapped around the neck, he yelled, “Push!”
Charlene did her best to comply with the order, her toes curling as she attempted to expel the entire contents of her abdomen, and when the breaking point was most certainly reached, surpassed, and then reached again, there was a soft popping sound and the rest of the baby emerged, the starfish body tumbling out into the dim mustard glow of this world.
Kermin leaned in to catch a first glimpse of his new child. Ever since his wife had come hobbling into his tiny electronics closet, staring at her dripping hand as if it were not her own, time had begun to unravel. The labor had come three weeks early. His fingers — so steady as he mended the cathode ruptures and fizzled diodes of his broken radios and televisions — suddenly became clumsy and numb at their tips, as if they were filled with a thick, viscous sap. In the hospital parking lot, he had taken the old Buick up and over the curb onto a low, half-moon shrubbery, which had not weathered this trespass well at all.
As he ushered a blanketed Charlene through the rotating doors, Kermin had looked back at the battered shrubs, lit by the ugly glow of the parking lot’s blinking fluorescents, and wondered in that moment if they were prematurely introducing the future into the present.
In the final days of World War II, his younger sister Tura had also been born three weeks early. He and his parents had been fleeing the advancing Communist Partisans for the uncertain refuge of Slovenia and the West when she arrived suddenly, like a sneeze, in the mildewed basement of a Bosnian hotel on the River Sana. He remembered her tiny and pink in their mother’s arms, sheltered by a horsehair blanket while they rode in the back of a sputtering diesel truck past homes that burned and hissed against a light rain.
That is my sister in there, he thought, watching the blanket bounce to the staccato beat of the road’s potholes. She was born in the war, but she will not know the war. I will tell her how it was so that we will always have the same memories.
Tura would not have the same memories as he, nor any memories at all. On the second day, she opened her eyes to the light of this world, but she would not nurse, and so her body grew soft and light like a bird’s. One week later she was dead, from an illness that was never named. They buried her in an abandoned vineyard on the outskirts of Zagreb. After the impromptu ceremony, they were walking back to the truck when they discovered an unexploded German bomb lying only twenty meters from her grave.
“Her headstone,” his father, Dobroslav, had said, and it was not meant to be a joke, but they all began to laugh, and this felt good until their mother started to weep again. Two days later, she too would be dead, at a checkpoint near Ljubljana. Kermin was too young at the time to understand the particulars, but he knew it was because of something vaguely erotic — something wanted by the trigger-happy Russian private with the moth-eaten beard and something refused by his grieving mother, who was malnourished and weak but who was still and always would be a strong-willed Radmanovic woman. His father had just turned from successfully negotiating their passage with the squat colonel, but it was too late; the young Russian guard had already shot her twice through the chest. It was as if the man had meant to push her backwards with the palm of his hand but had simply used the wrong tool. He began to walk quickly away from the scene so his comrades would not see the terror in his eyes. Instead of falling to the ground like a heavy doll, as Kermin had seen the prisoners do at the Chetnik executions, his mother shrank into herself, a reverse blossoming, coming to rest in a sitting position, like a ruminative Buddha. She was already stiff by the time her husband reached her. He sat down beside her and held her hands as though they were quietly praying together. Later, the colonel apologized to his father and promised that the young guard would be executed before the day was through.
Years later, even after he had fled Europe, Kermin’s limited sexual encounters — in a Meadowlands parking lot; in a Saigon bordello; behind the vestry of St. Sava’s; in the synthetic floral bloom of his dentist’s bathroom — these moments of carnal urgency were still inflected with the lingering sense of crossing a hostile border. Until he had met Charlene, his relationships had not gone well.
In the darkness of birthing room 4C, Kermin tried to hold his pocket lightsteady on his wife and brand-new baby. All will be fine, he whispered to himself, there is no reason to worry. His own birth had been famously quick and painless. His mother had claimed he leaped out into the world the first chance he got, as if he could not breathe inside her. “I was killing you!” she used to say. Maybe his child would be no different. Kakav otac takav sin. Like father, like son.
But even then he could tell something was not right. Under the pocket light’s dull beam, the child appeared almost prehistoric. The newborn’s skin was covered in a white, gooey plaster, as if he were not a baby but a statue mold of a baby — a golem, complete with tiny plaster penis. Kermin stared. He wanted to press his hand into this creature’s clay skin, to test its warmth, but already here were the first signs of life: the statue-child was squirming, clawing for oxygen, expelling the first sticky mew of a cry, his tiny mouth working the air for the solidity of a nipple.
“Why is he like this?” Kermin whispered, his pocket light inadvertently dipping before he righted its beam again. “Why does he look like this?”
Charlene, completely exhausted but wild with muddied adrenaline, tasted the concern in her husband’s voice. She tried to sit up.
“What is it? What’s wrong? He’s a boy? Is he okay?” The words swung and gimballed.
“Don’t worry, don’t worry. He’s fine,” Dr. Sherman reassured her, gathering the baby and all of his limbs into a pastel blanket. Instinctively, he took the bright white plastic clamp from the tray and snapped it closed at the base of the umbilical cord. “Preterms are often covered in a substance called vernix caseosa. This protects their skin. It will come right off.” In truth, he had never quite seen such a thick vernix coating, but then there had been nothing normal about this night, so he tried not to let his concern reveal itself in the contours of his words.
Charlene’s green eyes burned in the light.
“I want him with me . . .” she said.
“You will have him, don’t you worry,” said the nurse. “You’ll have him for the rest of your life.”
Before Charlene could process the ominous undercurrent of this statement, the nurse put a hand on her shoulder and gently eased her backwards onto the bed. She smoothed a wet curl of black hair across Charlene’s forehead and then adjusted the flow of her IV, opening the secondary port to allow an influx of opioids. Charlene let out a quiet groan and slumped back into the darkness.
“Do we have battery power on the suction?” Dr. Sherman asked.
The nurse checked the machine. “No, doctor,” she said.
“That’s all right. I’ll do it myself.”
He took a wet cloth and carefully wiped off the child’s mouth and face and then his left arm. The thick layer of vernix came away easily. “You see?” he said to Kermin, but Kermin did not answer. He was holding his pocket light, staring at his son. Where the doctor had wiped away the globular coating, the child’s skin appeared very dark — so dark it shimmered purple in the beam of light, like an eggplant. Dr. Sherman looked down and caught his breath. He wiped away more of the white substance.
The jet-black umbra of the skin beneath the bright vernix was disarming, as if beneath his covering the child was made only of more shadows.
“He is okay?” Kermin was asking from behind. “He looks . . .” There was not a word for this. And now the first full-force wail from the infant, announcing his own arrival.
“Doctor, should we do an Apgar test?” the nurse asked. The doctor hesitated, mystified, holding the baby up to the beam of light. The body squirmed, half white, half black — a negative image of itself. There was a chance this was all still a dream, though the pain in his oblique muscles told him otherwise. He had lived long enough to know that pain never appears in dreams.
From somewhere down the hall came the sound of urgent shouting.
Dr. Sherman snapped back to life. “It’s a boy!” he said, flushing out the obvious. He busied himself with wiping away the rest of the vernix and then snipped the umbilical cord with a precision that calmed his nerves.
“I’ll get an Apgar. Can we get some more lamps in here?” He was enjoying speaking aloud. The act of speaking was making this world possible again. “And what the hell happened with the electric? Can someone find out? You would think with all of this modern technology . . .”
“Can I have him?” Charlene said from the darkness.
“We just want to run a few tests to make sure — ” Dr. Sherman was in the process of handing the baby off to the nurse when a deep, mechanical moan rose up from somewhere in the building. The central air system shuddered and the ducts began to exhale above their heads and then all of the lights in the room sputtered on, one by one.
Those collected in the birthing room blinked as their pupils constricted with this explosion of photons. Everyone stared at the baby wriggling in the doctor’s outstretched hands. In the harsh light of the fluorescents, the infant’s skin, marked by the last globs of remaining vernix, was as black as the darkness from which he had just emerged. The umbilical cord and its apparatus dangled white and translucent against tiny, pumping legs the color of charcoal. Such monochromatic contrast appeared manufactured; the child looked like a puppet come to life.
“Why is he . . . so like this?” Kermin finally blurted out.
“I wouldn’t worry,” Dr. Sherman said reflexively, finishing the handoff to the nurse. “Many newborns have a different skin color when they first come out of the womb. A mark of transition. This will all correct itself.”
“Is something wrong?” Charlene asked, drunk on her drugs, her pasty skin flush with the exertion of her labor. She reached for her child, but he was already being wheeled out of the room on a special trolley, followed by the doctor, who began yelling at someone down the hall.
“Is something wrong?” Charlene asked again. “What is that smell?”
“He is . . .” Kermin said, staring at the door, left to wander closed on its hinges. They were suddenly, strangely alone. “He is . . . Radar.”
“His name: Radar.”
To her horror, Charlene realized they had never settled on a name. On several occasions they had tentatively circled the topic, but each time, all she could muster was a halfhearted short list of names for girls, and these tended to be lifted directly from famous novels: Anna, Dolores, Hester, Lucie, Edna. Every choice seemed either too obvious or too obscure or both too obvious and too obscure at the same time. How to name someone who existed only in theory? And coming up with a single viable boy name proved next to impossible. You were not just naming the boy — you were naming the man. Kermin, of course, proved no help at all; all five of his suggestions had been lifted from an electromagnetic textbook. And so Charlene succumbed to the narrative that they would have a girl and that all would become clear later. The decision of the name had been abandoned for simpler, tactile assignments, such as assembling the crib. They had cleared out space for the nursery; they had bought diapers and a kaleidoscope of onesies; they had inherited an outdated perambulator from her parents; but they had chosen no name. Except now that the baby had arrived (and left again), now that the baby had in fact revealed himself to be a he, the absence of a name suddenly took on great significance. He could not exist without a name.
“Radar,” Kermin said again. “You know, radar. Like bats. And aeroplanes.”
“I know what radar is,” she said. She willed her brain into action. “What about . . . Charles?” Charles had been the name of her preschool boyfriend. He had punched her in the stomach to declare his love. She had not thought of him in at least thirty years, but now his name rose from the depths and became the stand‑in for all things male.
“Charles?” said Kermin.
“Yes, he can be a Charlie . . . or Chuck . . . or Chaz.”
“Chaz? What is Chaz?”
She sighed. She was too tired for this.
“Okay, not Charles, then. What about your father’s name?”
“Dobroslav? This is peasant name.”
“I’m being serious, Kerm! What about your name?”
His own name was not so much a name as a signal of protest. In the small Serbian village in eastern Croatia where he was born, a name was practically all you had. To know your name was to know your history, your present standing, the circumscription of your future. It was the one thing you could never escape. His father, in a feat of madness or brilliance, had bucked their heritage and invented the name Kermin, in service to no tradition, lineage, or culture. Kermin had thus been both blessed and cursed: his singularity established, he could claim to have never met another with his same name, but he had also weathered a lifetime of confused looks when introduced on both sides of the Atlantic. Kermit? Like the frog?
“But listen,” he said. “I am being serious: Radar is name. Have you seen this television program M*A*S*H?” He articulated each letter, as if they were made out of wood. “Corporal Radar O’Reilly can sense the choppers before they arrive. It is like he has this ESP.”
“We don’t want our child to have ESP,” said Charlene, bringing her hands to her face. The hospital bracelet white against her wrist. “I just want to see him . . . Where did they take him? They can’t just take him like that . . . I want to see him, Kerm. Bring him back to me.”
Later, hunkered down in a deserted corner of the hospital, Kermin tapped out a message on his telegraph key, his thumb conjuring signal with the quiver of the smooth brass lever. The clusters of clicks and clats evaporated into the air, invisible pulses slipping out into the Jersey night, to be collected like dew by the radios of those who were listening in the early- morning hours:
—• — •• — • — 4 17 75.
MY SON IS BORN. RADAR RADMANOVIC.
MOTHER IS FINE. BABY IS FINE. I AM FINE.
KAKAV OTAC TAKAV SIN.
Moments before, the nurse had asked Kermin for the child’s name.
“I must type it up,” she said. “For the certificate.”
He had glanced through the doorway at his sleeping wife.
“Radar,” he said, testing the boundaries of truth. “It’s Radar.”
“Radar?” The nurse raised her eyebrows, unsure she had heard the word correctly.
“Radar,” he confirmed, bouncing and recalling his fingers from an invisible barrier. “Like this: Signal. Echo. Return.”
Excerpt from I Am Radar by Reif Larsen, which will be released on February 24, 2015.