If the stars could have spoken, if the stars did speak, I understood what they said. They hung just outside the city limits - a sort of quasi-frontier in the small town night of the early pandemic. No people, the city limits, delineated by its dark green road sign reading the population and the year they came over the big hill into town in their covered wagons and disassembled log homes and the policeman idling in the gravel junkyard listening to Robert Johnson’s Hellhound Blues, seemed a sort of castle looming within the wooded night. Quiet, windows unlit but alive, the simple snore of its humanity registered in the decibels of the haze of the sky above it - a reminder that even with no movement, no expenditure of energy, the wooden floors of a home still creak with the passing of wind in the absence of footsteps. Neon signs, reverent in their authenticity, send pollutants from the store windows revealing empty desks and clean carpets up into the night sky, joining forces with the smoke billowing from the wood pellet factory that once danced alongside the coal burning railcars on the train tracks through the center of town to tint the formerly black sky of the Chickasaw a muddy brown and scurry the stars past the Tombigbee like a big black boot stomping an anthill.

Without traffic, no headlights pouring in and out of town to make a discernible path from civilization to civilization, the grids of trees, formerly commercialized as Cotton Gin Port, seemed to return to dark borderlands. Indeed, it suddenly felt safer to be among the people, inside the guard of the now-snoring sheriff. When solitude made sense, the dark pushed the town into a collective. A castle in the night, an intruder within its walls.

My foot pulled up from the gas pedal as I summitted the Tombigbee Bridge, as if a string was wrapped around the toebox of my worn, white leather converse pulling from the metal basketball goal drilled into the cement driveway of my childhood home on the north side of town.

I pushed the pedal down to the floorboard to break the string. But it wouldn’t budge. I pushed harder, the pedal going parallel to the dirt-stained black floorboard, my laces flirting with the decade-old, coarse felt. To pull the basketball goal from the dirt. From the cracked dirt with the ghostly embedded footsteps of me and my brother Matt when we were young and would go behind the goal, stepping over tree branches and ant hills that would eventually be replaced by gravel to park our family SUV closing in on retirement, to make a trick shot from behind the backboard to win our weekly game of horse. The rules were simple. I would take a shot at the basket, and, if I made it, Matt would have to take the same shot. If I missed the shot initially, he would get to take a shot from wherever he chose. Whoever couldn’t match the shot would get a letter “h.” First one to spell out “horse” loses. The game was our form of conversation, its call and response able to wipe out the decade of time between us.

The string went taut just before Cotton Gin Port Hill, I could go no further. I stopped the engine, my headlights flashing on a gate sign reading “no trespassing” rising up from the white lilies thankful for the splash of light and swaying alongside the blades of green grass and insidious weeds, taunting me. I must go back. I had to turn this car back around and summit the Tombigbee Bridge once more. To investigate the castle, the castle that exiled the stars.

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