Letter By Letter | Denise Tolan

26 mins read

*Define Domestic Mail: “Domestic Mail is classified by size, weight, content, and other factors.”

The first letter arrived less than a week after Ed’s burial. Martha recognized the postmark: Bluffton, South Carolina. She also knew it was Ed who had handwritten her name and address on the envelope. Martha ran her fingers over the ink and felt the heavy anger rise from the indentation. 

Martha’s experience as a postal employee told her the envelope didn’t carry much weight. She figured it did contain Ed’s apology for killing himself. She’d already forgiven him the suicide; after all, he’d been convicted of postal fraud and would likely spend the last third of his life in prison if he survived. 

It wasn’t that he killed himself that bothered her, it was where he did it. While she and his mother sat on the couch watching Wheel of Fortune, he’d gone outside on the patio to pull the trigger. The bullet had gone through his head and the sliding glass door, causing slivers of brain and glass to blast into the house like an ancient volcano showering bits of Ed over the couch, the carpet, and the walls. Now his mother, who lived with them, would no longer walk into the living room. Since there was no way to get to the kitchen without walking by the sliding glass door, Martha had to bring her mother-in-law’s meals into the bedroom for her. Extra steps. Extra time. Always more.

Martha was not without compassion for her mother-in-law. Martha’s own son hadn’t been able to attend his father’s funeral as he was currently serving time in the federal penitentiary for armed robbery. But at least he was alive. Martha couldn’t imagine having a son who killed himself. Little Ed would be back some day. Big Ed would not. There was a comfort there.

Early in the morning, still numb from sleep, Martha would get up to make coffee and for a split second, she’d forget what Ed had done. Then she’d turn the corner and face the wood panel masquerading as a temporary glass door and the second of reprieve was shattered. Although the new patio door was ready to install, Martha waited to call for an appointment. It was easier not to see through to the other side just yet. 

“Everything all right, ma’am,” a voice called out.

Martha was still at the mailbox, holding the letter away from her body as if it was a bug she had squashed. It took a second to locate the voice coming from the FedEx truck in front of her house.

“Yes,” she said, shielding her eyes from the sun. “Just daydreaming, I guess.”

“All right then. Wanted to make sure. Awfully warm out here today.” She could almost see him now, FedEx cap on his head, sunglasses covering his eyes. “You have a nice day.”

He drove off and she watched until the back of the truck disappeared over the hill.

Martha brought the letter into the kitchen and opened it, hoping to find some peace. At the sight of the first word, she remembered the brutal sting of hope.

Dear Bitch, it began. I hope you’re happy now. I’m dead and you’re alive, but I’m going to make you wish you were with me.

She had been wrong earlier. The envelope did contain weight. 

*Define Missing Mail: “Missing Mail is mail that has not been delivered by the expected delivery date.”

A few days after the first letter arrived, Martha walked to the mailbox and pretended to check the mail. The Fed Ex truck didn’t come by. 

Later, in town, she heard a horn. It was the truck. 

“No daydreaming today, huh?”

“No sir,” she said, feeling stupidly happy to see him. “Had to get some shopping done.”

“Well, it’s good to see you out and about. That lilac is a nice color on you.”

Martha looked down at her floral housedress and the spell was broken. She remembered she was just a shapeless lump, not a woman who could generate any interest at all. She hated to look back at the man in the truck. She’d mistaken common courtesy for something else. He started up his engine.

“I best keep track of my time,” he said. “Name’s Kordell.”


“Martha,” he said as if he tasted something he liked and wanted to memorize the name. “Okay then, Martha. See you around.”

She heard the beep-beep-beep of his truck as he backed up. 

*Define Damaged Mail: “If your mailpiece arrives damaged or is missing items, you may file a claim immediately.”

Looking back, she supposed Ed was always a writer. A few days after giving birth to their son, Martha, still carrying thirty pounds of pregnancy weight, had woken to find a cartoon from a magazine taped to her bathroom mirror. The picture was of an overweight woman standing in a bra and underwear in a doctor’s office. There was a measuring tape around the woman’s waist. Looking at the numbers on the tape, the doctor’s hair stood on end. A cartoon circle led from the woman’s head to the mirror. Using Martha’s lipstick Ed had written, “Recognize yourself, fat pig bitch?” 

She’d taken a Kleenex and wiped the mirror.

Over the years, she’d woken to find many notes. When he could find nothing to write about, he’d hit her or spit at her or throw things at her. Words were the least of her worries. 

Or had been. 

She wasn’t sure now.

*Define Dead Letters: “Mail that is undeliverable and cannot be returned to sender.”

Most of their co-workers skipped Ed’s funeral. Martha expected as much since there was a stench around Ed’s name now. He hadn’t been all that popular even before the fraud charges. Still, after twenty-five years of working together at the Bluffton post office, she thought one or two people might express their condolences to her. Since no one had ever so much as asked how she and Ed met, Martha thought of telling their story at Ed’s service. 

It was Natalie Hightower’s thirteenth birthday party. All the seventh grade students had been invited to the Lakeland Boat Dock. “Sailing Into your Teens,” was the theme for the night. Paper sailboats hung from the ceiling while actual sailboats floated in the bay.

While the parents, chaperones in theory only, migrated to the outside deck to smoke and drink, the kids took turns sneaking under the tables pouring vodka into cups of punch. After a while, they gave up sneaking and just sat on the floor by the tables. 

Martha noticed the energy in the room shift when the coolest boy in the class, Dave Earnstead, walked in. He wore a faded blue-jean jacket. A beer bottle was tucked into his back pocket. When he went to join the other boys on the floor, the bottle rolled out and hit the ground. 

“Hey,” someone shouted. “Spin the bottle!”

Dave spun first.

“Who did this?” birthday girl Natalie said, fake pretending to be outraged when she opened her eyes to find the nose of the bottle facing her. Her tiny pink fingernails stood out brightly against her white sailor skirt. 

Natalie and Dave walked into the circle to kiss. Both of them had perfectly feathered bangs and clear skin. It was like watching a movie when they came together. Everyone whooped until someone whispered, “keep it down.” No one wanted the parents to catch wind of the fun.

After a few more couples kissed, Martha sensed the current changing. She heard giggles and whispers and saw people staring at her, then looking down when she looked their way.

“Okay then,” Dave said, handing the bottle to Ed. “Your turn. Let ‘er spin.”

Everyone closed their eyes while Ed spun the bottle. When Dave called for everyone to open their eyes, Martha knew the bottle would be pointing straight at her. As the giggles began in earnest, Ed opened his eyes. He was the only one who needed a moment to locate the end of the bottle. 

Ed faced Martha. She wasn’t a prize, but he was a realist and understood how the pecking order of life worked. The worst thing he could do right now was fight fate, so he stood and reached his hand out to Martha. 

“Back up,” a girl whispered as Martha and Ed walked toward the middle of the circle. “Their zits might pop when they touch each other.”

Ed leaned over to kiss Martha. He kept his hands to his side. It was a chaste kiss, close lipped and fast. When it was over, Martha hurried back to her friend Lisa. 

“Not too bad?” Lisa asked. 

Martha shrugged. It wasn’t what she imagined her first kiss would be, but at least Ed hadn’t made it worse by acting like he wanted to throw up or anything.

In school on Monday, Ed sat with her at lunch. “I guess I need your number,” he said. They talked on the phone every night after that. Martha mostly listened while Ed talked about baseball, but she had a boyfriend, and in her world, that mattered a lot.

Ed accepted Martha like he took hand me downs from his two older brothers. It didn’t mean he wasn’t resentful. When the bottle pointed her way, he figured the rest of the world was pointing too.

After she’d been his girlfriend for a few months, they walked to the park down the street from her house. Ed kissed her and tried out his tongue in her mouth. 

Martha stepped back. “Gross, Ed.” 

Gross you, he thought, and slapped her hard across the face.

For a moment there was only the sound of what happened: Martha’s

breath being sucked in, her glasses hitting the base of the slide, his mumbled apologies. 

The next time he tried the tongue, she didn’t pull back. 

When he reached under her blouse a week later, she stepped back again. He slapped her harder. He didn’t hear anything this time except her apologies as he walked away.

It became the way they operated. He wanted something, she didn’t, he hit, she gave in. She was doing almost everything Ed wanted by now. He’d never been in there before, but one night he reached in with one finger then two then three. In his excitement he dug too deeply and too roughly and she pulled back. 

When he slapped her, she felt something different, something hot and wet. In the light of the car mirror she saw blood, not from her skin, but from his fingers, the ones that had been inside of her. 

She had been marked.

At eighteen they got married at the courthouse and found jobs at a post office a few towns over. All these years later, she could barely remember an actual conversation between them that didn’t involve logistics – where, when, how, who. If he needed to make a deeper point, he’d write her a note. 

Martha decided not to speak at Ed’s service. There was very little of the story she would have told anyway.

*Define Direct Mail: “Another name for mail sent to targeted markets.”

Martha was waxing the floor in the hallway when she heard a short series of honks. She opened the door and saw the FedEx truck parked at her mailbox. While she walked toward the truck, she touched her hair, glad she had taken the time to have it cut and colored. 

“I want gold accents,” she’d told Wanda, the stylist, when she walked into the salon without an appointment. Martha saw the surprised looks of the women in the beauty shop.

“Accents?” Wanda asked. “You mean you want highlights, Miss Martha?”

“Yes. Okay. Highlights. I need a change.”

The atmosphere in the shop softened as everyone remembered Martha’s recent tragic situation. “Of course you need a change, darling,” Miss Laura yelled from under the dryer. “I think gold highlights would be nice with your skin tone.”

Martha walked outside toward the FedEx truck. “Do I have a delivery?” 

“Nah. Just hadn’t seen you in a few days. Say – your hair looks nice.”

Martha blushed so deeply she thought she might burst a blood vessel. “Thank you.”

“Listen,” Kordell said. “Do you think we might be able to meet up for coffee or something one day?”

Everything in the air seemed to stop. Martha couldn’t hear the birds singing or the waves lapping in the inlet across the street. Kordell saw her face drop. “Oh boy. I’m sorry. I thought, you know, we might be friends.” He started up the truck.

“Wait,” she said, moving closer to the window. “My husband killed himself recently. I’m afraid what folks will say if they see me out and about.”

“You were married to that man who got himself in trouble with the post office, right?”

Martha nodded.

“He was nothing but a piece of shit from what I heard.”

Martha decided to tell the truth. “You heard right.”

Kordell leaned his head against the headrest for a moment then looked back at Martha. “Tell you what. I understand how people talk. After all, even I heard about your man. But I like you. Can I come by here instead? Maybe Friday after work?”

Martha thought about her mother-in-law and how much grieving she was still doing. She also thought about all the nights her mother-in-law listened in silence as Martha took hit after hit after hit.

“Plan on Friday,” she said. “I’ll make us some coffee.”

“Mother Deidra?” Martha said to her mother-in-law as she brought her supper that evening. “I’m having a friend over for coffee Friday. I know you won’t join us in the kitchen, but I wanted you to know.”

“A friend? What kind of friend?”


“Kordell,” mother Deidra said, her face scrunched up like she eaten something she couldn’t wait to spit out. “That’s a man’s name.”

“So it is,” Martha said, leaving her to her supper. 

The next morning, Martha reached into the mailbox. The second letter was there. Dear Bitch, it began again. Are you enjoying stuffing your fat face while I’m rotting in the ground? Can you smell my stinking flesh? It smells just like your cunt.

She knew then the letters would keep coming. 

*Define Harassing Mail: “Harassing postal customers by mail is a serious offense that should be reported to the proper authorities [. . .] Save every harassing letter you receive.”

Friday in the lunchroom, she noticed Larry Saunders looking her way. Larry was a nice man whose wife died of breast cancer three years ago. He was one of a handful of people who spoke to Ed on occasion. Martha knew then it was Larry who was sending the letters, although she was also sure Larry had no way of knowing what he was sending. 

“Larry?” Martha asked. “I’m not angry but please tell me, how many letters?”

He reddened instantly and hunched his thin shoulders forward like a Swiss army knife about to fold. “I’d say over two hundred.”

Martha kept her breathing even.  “Okay. I just wondered what to expect.”

“He paid me in advance,” Larry said. “I gave my word.”

On Friday afternoon, Martha hurried home from work to get the coffee ready for Kordell. She’d bought some nice cookies from Miss Rose’s place the day before. 

In the mailbox, another letter. 

Dear Bitch, it began. I hope when you sleep at night you know I still see you. I’m dead and there you are getting fatter and uglier every day. Why bother? I only used one bullet. Plenty left.

Why she should bother? It didn’t matter if any good ever came into her life, even dead, Ed was bound and determined to find a way to ruin it. 

She stood by the mailbox until an unfamiliar car pulled into her driveway. Kordell got out. He was wearing ironed jeans and a light blue oxford shirt. Without his FedEx cap, she could see he had wavy hair.

“Why are you out here crying?” he asked. He saw the letter and took it from her. “This from him?”

She nodded. 

“Shit. He wrote this before he offed himself?”

She nodded again.

“Goddamn,” he said. “Are there more?”


“Well, let’s get inside. From now on, I’m picking up your mail.”

*Define Mail Refusal: “The United States Postal Service® will deliver the mail as addressed, but it does not have to be accepted.” 

It wasn’t long before Kordell moved in and her mother-in-law had a stroke and went to a nursing home to wait patiently for death. Martha woke up every day to a note from Kordell on the kitchen table. “See you tonight, baby doll. Hope you have a great day.” The notes were always simple, always sweet, always about her.

People in town no longer looked at Martha with pity. For a brief moment, she had been a grieving widow, a suffering mother, a doting daughter-in-law. Then she took in Kordell. It seemed that Martha was welcome to take in anything but joy.

Rumors swirled. One of the trash collectors had seen a note Kordell left for Martha and exaggerated the contents. All of those years, had he never seen a letter in the trash from Ed? The people suddenly overturned Ed’s conviction. Now Ed was just a regular dead guy with a wife who abandoned his mother and forgotten he’d ever been alive. 

That night someone threw a tomato at Martha’s patio door. In the morning, Martha saw the red mess smeared on the glass and felt marked all over again. 

No wonder Ed hit her, people whispered. Turns out, she was nothing but trash. 

Denise Tolan’s work has been included in places such as The Best Small Fictions 2018, The Best Short Stories from The Saturday Evening Post, Hobart, Lunch Ticket, and was a finalist for both the 2019 and 2018 International Literary Awards: Penelope Niven Prize in Nonfiction.