The Year of the Humming Turban

It was about three weeks after my father died that I heard his turban start to hum. The university had wanted to give me more time to clear his office, but fall semester was approaching and now I’d been sleepless for days trying to box everything up. The turban was on top of the filing cabinet just where he’d left it, emitting a high-pitched buzz. Its brown leopard spots seemed to vibrate against their mustard-yellow background. I peered inside. It was empty, but as I leaned in, the sound grew. I had the sense of tipping my ear toward a shell, straining to hear a faraway sea.

I stuffed it into my bag, careful not to bend the edges my father had so meticulously formed. At home, I ordered a pizza and watched the turban on the kitchen table as I ate. It cycled through a series of blips and hisses. Every now and then I thought I heard a voice.

I tried looking up on my phone what might be happening, but I didn’t even know what to search. Later, lying in bed, I could hear it sputtering from the kitchen. I rose to close the bedroom door, but found myself carrying it back to the bedroom. I could barely sleep anyway, so I put it next to my pillow and lay on my side, watching the spots shimmer. Then, all at once the static dissipated, and clear as a summer day I heard the unmistakable, orderly pop of a tennis ball volleying back and forth. The longer I listened, the more I thought I could hear other sounds like birds chirping overhead or the occasional car passing in the background. Finally came a grunt, an exclamation, and a halt of the volley. I thought I recognized the voice of my father’s tennis partner at the university for years. After a moment, the powerful thwack of a serve triggered the rhythmic volley again. That first night I listened for hours in case the sound of my father’s voice came. It never did, but I slept for the first time in what seemed like months and woke feeling like I’d traveled to another world.

The days came and went. Boxes trickled from my father’s office to my apartment, filling up my living room like the bottom half of an hourglass. At night I lay with my ear craned toward the conch shell of my father’s turban, struggling to decipher whatever came forth. It wasn’t always tennis. Sometimes it was just the hum, or something like the tinkling of glassware at a cocktail party, or the drone of a harmonium and indistinct voices singing shabads in a far-off gurdwara.

With each new sound—a baby’s cry, the breathlessness of lovemaking—I googled it for a deeper meaning, perhaps some Jungian archetype. There could be some message being sent, if only I could work it out. I looked for patterns, an order in the sounds, any correlation or overlap between them.

At best, they were seasonal. Summer waned and the sounds of tennis tapered off, replaced by a murmuring like students in a classroom, the lull of someone lecturing. My father’s voice? I couldn’t tell. Once I thought I heard an entire lecture on supply side economics and understood it so well I could have taught it myself.

In the mornings I was never sure if what I’d heard had come from the turban or blossomed out of my dreams, where I occasionally also saw him: a few rows ahead of me in an audience, across the room at a party, or once, sitting on the edge of his bed beside his shortwave radio in the nights after my mom had passed, tuning in stations from far away. I crept out of my bedroom and watched his back from the hallway. Some nights he listened to German, other nights Arabic or Urdu. Some nights he just dialed each station in carefully, listened for a few moments, then moved on.

I didn’t tell anyone what I heard. Weekdays I sat in the courtroom punching the buttons that transformed the stream of testimonies into digital code. Evenings and weekends I sifted through the boxes, scanned documents, and searched for the meaning in the sounds from the turban. I kept it all to myself. I didn’t want anybody to tell me the sounds weren’t really there, or, worse, give me a simple, obvious explanation.

Through the winter, the tennis stopped completely, but then came ping pong. Faster, tinnier, and higher-pitched, the rallies were furious and exhausting, harder to sleep through. I started putting the turban further away—on the bedside table, then across the room on the dresser.

By spring I’d cleared most of the boxes. Original letters had been lovingly shipped back to their writers. Clothing had been donated or scrapped, books sorted, the hourglass of my living room slowly emptying out again.

With the warming weather, the sounds of tennis returned, but I noticed they were softer, more distant. I brought the turban back to the bed. The serves were slower now, less explosive. It could be up to ten minutes before I heard the ball bounce and be returned from the other side. I imagined the players starfishing around the court in slow motion, planets moving toward each other and then apart across a universe.

By the time summer came round again, I heard almost nothing from the turban, just the mild, constant hum, like a ring in the ear. Closing the last box, I tossed in the encyclopedia of dream symbols I’d bought. I’d given up trying to figure out what the turban was trying to say. Maybe there wasn’t actually any message to make out in the sounds. Maybe all I’d had was the chance to hear them.

Sometimes someone will ask me why I still have my dad’s turban on my dresser. Really, what they’re asking is, why do we keep objects once they’re no longer useful? I always say, it’s because of their echoes of a past life. People nod solemnly and consider this a metaphor, which is perhaps how I mean it. But now and then, in the deepest moments of the night, when I’m no longer sure whether I’m awake or asleep, I hear again the glitchy, oscillation like a shortwave radio, and I lie trying to tune in the frequency of my father’s voice, straining to hear a message that might still come.