By Ted Kooser, from the latest issue of New Letters. Kooser is a former U.S. poet laureate and the winner of the 2005 Pulitzer Prize in poetry.
That was its business name, but everybody in town
called it the rendering works, and it stood in its stink
on the wooded west bank of the Skunk, its parking lot
half full of run-down trucks nosed into carcasses
piled at the downwind side, brown, rank and bloating.
Through willows that grew along the bank I once saw
one of the workers using the dusty flank of a horse
as a bench to eat his lunch, the sandwich wrapper
a glitter of flies on the hide beside him.
Out of a pipe like a piece of gut, a gray-blue trickle
had eaten its way across a grassy mud bar,
and the Skunk brought bullheads lipping up to it,
the fightingest and fattest up and down the river,
and we had fished it all the way from Soper’s Mill
down to the high Chicago and Northwestern trestle
beneath which our childhood was flowing away.
There was a girl in our sixth grade class whose father
worked at the rendering works, up to his elbows in blood
gone wormy, blue, and curdling, a poor man growing
poorer by the year, blue work shirts worn as thin
as window screens along the clothesline in their yard.
She was taller and older than us from having moved
from school to school, and had big, interesting breasts
before the other girls had any, and it made us mean
as snakes. We pinched our noses behind her back,
as if she stunk, though she was always clean and
combed, cycling her few good dresses through the weeks.
She did their laundry, hung out the wash, showing
a good part of her legs as she bent to the basket,
and it seemed it was only the two of them there
as we rode our bikes past, over and over again.
She was cool and aloof in our schoolroom, her eyes
disdaining ours, already a woman, inexplicable,
and then one day she was gone, her father’s damp shirts
gone from the sagging rope and the screen door hooked
forever over who she may have been behind it.