Literary Yard

Search for meaning

The Bright Yellow Birdhouse 

By: Leon Kortenkamp

 “No, she’s not here,” he said.

 “I don’t know…Look, I can’t go into it right now.”

 He wasn’t about to indulge his sister’s curiosity; the last thing he needed was to get into it with her. But she pressed, so he added, “Look, we had a little row, and she left.”

“Yeah, the baby thing. She’s likely over at Muriel’s.”


His given name was Theodore, but everybody called him Ted.  His parents named him after the famous president of the University of Notre Dame, where his dad graduated with honors and went on to law school.  

Ted was tall and lean, with dark wavy hair that fell across his forehead as a casual accent to his finely chiseled features and his mother’s dark curious eyes.  As far back as he could remember it was presumed that he would follow in his father’s footsteps, which he did. And finally, in accord with family expectations, the crowning jewel was a junior partnership in the law firm his father established with two old Notre Dame friends. It was by most measures the most esteemed law firm in San Mateo.

As lavish opportunities unfolded for him, he increasingly realized that following in his father’s footsteps included living in his father’s shadow. He came to realize that the yellow brick road of provided opportunity was also the road of expected appreciation and sometimes suffocating presuppositions.

He lit a cigarette and paced the long central hallway of their townhouse.  He found the black and white floor tiles reassuring.  The floor was his own handiwork, reminiscent of the checkerboard marble floor in the grand gallery of Chateau Chenonceau. The pattern made him feel established every time he opened the front door.  He and Ellie, toured Chenonceau on an anniversary trip.  Third anniversary.  They covered all the Chateau country, eating French food, and drinking French wines.  Lots of wine.  For a time, they were like newlyweds again.

She said very little as she left.  Her question, left hanging in a plaintive silence and punctuated by the solemnity with which she closed the front door, said it all. He would call her and apologize for the way it went between them, but he knew a flat apology wouldn’t do it.  This time he had flubbed the argument; he played the affordability card, which had lost all credibility.  He recently received a raise at the firm, Ellie had just landed a fat contract at the agency, and he hadn’t bothered to update his argument. The truth was the prospect of starting a family terrified him. His life already felt very tightly buttoned down, and he couldn’t imagine that having a baby wouldn’t button it down even tighter.  

Ellie didn’t allow smoking in the house, and recognizing his smoking in the hallway was a form of childish pushback, he stepped into the back patio.  He needed to think, and he needed a drink, so he finished his cigarette, poured himself two fingers of Scotch over ice and settled into a patio chair near the large fuchsia bush which seemed intent on taking over the entire patio.  He centered his glass precisely on a round coaster resting on the flat armrest, as he always did, with obsessive attention.  The coaster featured smiling faces of a man and a woman with the initials M & P superimposed over them. Some years back, he had slipped it into the pocket of his sport coat following a drink at his favorite New York bar.  It was a cherished link with a summer he spent there after law school interning at a bank in the morning and taking art classes in the afternoon.

Supposedly, he had gone to New York to acquire some firsthand experience in banking law before settling into the formidable challenge of passing the bar.  What interest he had in the twists and turns of big city banking was soon eclipsed by his ventures into the world of art.  It was a free-wheeling time of exhilarating discovery and unsettling dissonance, when inhibitions faded, ambitions morphed, and wanton intimacies bloomed as freely as the lilacs along the northern rim of Sheep Meadow. All the art students went by nicknames. Learning of Ted’s law background, one of the students nicknamed him Perry, and it stuck for the summer.  He became fond friends with a fellow painter and lovely free spirit, who introduced herself as Sunshine.  She and Ted spent a lot of time together, painting, drinking wine, talking about art on long walks. As their time became more intimate, he learned that her given name was Sunessa, but Sunshine fit her perfectly.  

Ted painted landscapes from photographs he took in Central Park with the afternoon light playing through the trees. Sometimes Sunshine would pose for him on a bench or walking away from him down a winding sidewalk.  Never facing him. He didn’t trust himself to produce a likeness, and he didn’t want to struggle with it.  He did take freedoms with color in the spirit of Gaugin, sometimes rendering a sunlit meadow in light rusty orange or a tree trunk in dull mauve.

By the end of the summer he had produced a small series of paintings, which he packed in a crate and shipped back to San Mateo.  The same week he made the rounds at the bank thanking his mentors. By then, it had become clear to Sunshine, and to him, as good as it had been, they did not have a future together.  They said their goodbyes over a final bottle of wine in Sheep Meadow and hadn’t been in touch since.

He met Ellie at a firm cocktail party shortly after his return from New York while he was in the throes of studying for the bar exam. She was pretty, slim, and in heels, as tall as he was.  Her flowing blond hair perfectly complemented her porcelain completion, brown eyes, and the soft pink lipstick she always wore. The perfect distraction he needed at the time, and she was happy to throw in her lot with a young, good-looking, up-and-coming lawyer.  They dated for a year before Ted yielded to increasing nudging from his parents and asked her to marry him. She made a lovely bride, and everybody said that they were a perfect couple.  

Over the past two years, he converted the backyard shed into a painting studio getaway. In time, he produced a few small landscapes, which hung around the house. He enjoyed bringing them to the attention of guests and recounting his summer as an art student. Ellie liked his paintings, but she didn’t like that they represented long reclusive hours in his backyard shed.

By his second sip of Scotch he was back to his serial fantasies of producing a series of paintings, having an exhibition at a recognized gallery and being lauded for his work in the local newspaper.  To him that would be a far more satisfying than arguing successful settlements in financial disputes.

A wren with a crushed insect in his beak hopped along the top of the backyard fence, dropped down and scooted along the border of the patio stones before flying to a little yellow birdhouse hanging in the fuchsia bush. He ducked into the house to a chorus of chirping. Ted envisioned a nest of hungry hatchlings snuggled next to Mama wren, their heads wagging from side to side, beaks wide open. His musings endeared him to his little visitor, who promptly emerged from the house, beak empty.  Selecting a perched atop the fuchsia bush, he boasted his domain with a long rolling trill.

Ellie had hung the birdhouse in the fuchsia a few weeks earlier.  She bought it at a small succulent nursery in Carmel Valley. At the time, Ted told her that the color was too bright. No bird would want to nest in a bright yellow birdhouse because birds like their nesting sites to blend into the natural surroundings.  She liked it, and bought it anyway.

The wren hopped to another perch in the fuchsia and again filled the patio with a long rolling trill. Momentarily, the display lifted Ted’s spirits, but his delight soon darkened to brooding comparison, and he found the display haughty, even derisive.   He took another sip of Scotch, and the wren took his song to the neighbor’s yard.

There was an audacity in the wren’s boast of domestic prowess. He celebrated that fulfillment with flare. Ted tasted a variation of that flare and audacity during his New York summer. A temerity that he continued to indulge when he put brush to canvas. It drew him back to his shed again and again to play in the mysteries of color and form. It was a freedom outside of time, past mundane measurement.

 Ted surmised the wren had taken it a step further, jumping into participation in the full flow of life with courage and abandon. That’s what this tiny bird, beak wide open, was celebrating with melodic swagger. He was celebrating his courage; he was delighting in his devoted mate, and most importantly he was trumpeting the tiny hatchlings and the potential they represent.  He was all in.  Not for himself; he was fully in for all of them.  It was who he was. Ted punctuated his reflections with his last sip of Scotch. For a small bird, the wren created a considerable disturbance.

It was all Ellie’s doing he mused.  She bought the birdhouse. She hung it in the fuchsia bush, and the wrens did the rest. Could a bird shame him into rethinking his dog-eared argument about when to start a family? What could go wrong there?

Lost in that thought, he mindlessly pondered the contours of his empty glass centered on its coaster when suddenly he heard the front door close. Rising from his chair and opening the back screen door he saw Ellie standing in the foyer, purse in hand, gazing down the checkered hallway.

“I heard the door,” Ted announced.

Ellie acknowledged with a nod.

Ted glanced at the empty glass in his hand and asked, “I was going to refresh my drink. Can I get you one?…It’s really good to see you.”

“Sure,” she answered, hanging her purse on a peg and glancing at her reflection in the hallway mirror.

“You were right about the birdhouse, you know,” Ted ventured from the kitchen.


“Yeah, the yellow one in the fuchsia bush.”

“I remember you didn’t want me to buy it,” she said, as she approached the back screen door. “Now it’s the centerpiece of our patio.”

“Right. And birds have made a nest in it,” Ted replied.

“Oh, how sweet.”

“Yeah…and I think you have been right about a lot of things.”

“Well…of course,” Ellie chuckled.  “Let’s hear more about that.”

“For sure,” Ted replied.

He handed her a drink. “I mean you’re right, Love.”

“You mean about the birdhouse?”

“Not just about the birdhouse. I agree, with you. It’s time for us to start our family.”

“Don’t kid around about that, Ted,” Ellie warned.

“I’m not kidding around. I’m with you, and I’m all for it. All for it, Ellie.”

“But what changed…?”

“Never mind that.” Ted raised his glass. “To us,” he toasted.

“Yes,” she whispered, slowly raising her glass. “To us.”


Leon Kortenkamp is a San Francisco Bay Area writer and artist who lives with his wife, Ginny, in Belmont, California. After completing his bachelor’s degree, he was drafted into military service during the Vietnam War and served two years with the US Navy in the Public Information Office aboard the flagship USS Saint Paul.  Following his military tour of duty, he was granted a full scholarship to the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana, where he earned a Master of Fine Arts degree.

His work has been published in Flash Fiction Magazine, Ploughshares, Literary Yard, Dime Show Review and other journals. Recent writing incudes poetry and short fiction, often illustrated with brushed-plate monotypes or enhanced photographs.


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