Whisper Down the Lane

Will Bob Slotkin ever learn to keep bad news to himself? New fiction by Allan M. Heller.

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The old joke about the four fastest methods of communication — telegraph, telephone, television, and tell a woman — was not only sexist but inaccurate, especially at Doldrum Enterprises, where the head of HR was a gossipy man. A smarmy, mean-spirited, gossipy man, who knew when to kiss up and when to put down. An early Friday morning found him standing in front of the president’s desk, trying not to smirk as he listened to the Big Boss deliver the bad news.

Norman Rockwell March 6, 1948
Norman RockwellMarch 6, 1948

Houghton Broxley cleared his throat. “I feel terrible about having to lay off five employees, especially around Christmas time.” A pause. “But the demand for plain 10-ounce Styrofoam cups has plateaued. Next week, I’ll make a formal announcement. Until then, Bob, keep this under your hat.”

Bob Slotkin nodded. “I appreciate that, Mr. Broxley. And I can assure you …”

A faint knocking cut him off. The door to Broxley’s office opened slowly and creaked loudly. A woman’s face peeked in.

“Mr. Broxley? Do you want me to clean both the restrooms today?”

“No, Iris, not today,” Broxley replied. “You can clock out now. I hope that your grandson feels better.”

Iris Garcia smiled. She was a short, plump, 50ish lady with bright green eyes. “Thank you, Mr. Broxley. I see you later.”

Broxley waved goodbye. The door closed.

Slotkin exited the office, his arms tucked tightly at his sides as if negotiating his way through a crowd. Somehow he still managed to bump into Halligan Bryan, who worked in shipping. Slotkin gasped, then shot an indignant look at the six-foot-four Bryan.

“Woops! You okay, Bob?”

“Yes, I suppose so.” The smirk would not be suppressed this time. “I’m a little preoccupied. Just got some bad news.”

Bryan looked worried. “Does it concern anybody I know?”

“It might,” Slotkin admitted. Then he whispered, “Mr. Broxley is laying off five people. But don’t tell anyone.”

Bryan couldn’t hide his consternation. Nine people, he thought. That was almost one-third of the workforce. Alistair Cummings, the mousy, neurotic little man who printed the day’s invoices for the folks in shipping, could smell bad news, and Bryan reeked. Cummings surrendered the batch of invoices.

“What’s wrong, Hal?”

“I’m really not supposed to say, but you’ll find out next week. Broxley’s canning nine employees.”

Cummings’ blood pressure shot up. Despite his exemplary work record, he was sure that his head would be among those on the chopping block.

“Oh my God,” he stammered.

“Al,” Bryan added. “You didn’t hear it from me.”

Cummings honored the request for anonymity. But there had been no admonition regarding silence, so he quietly confided in his friend and co-worker, Boyd Boise.

“19 people?” Boise nearly yelled, and was immediately shushed by Cummings. Then Boise whispered, “Who told you that?” Cummings wouldn’t say.

When Boise was clocking out for the day, his supervisor, Kate Chaplin, asked him why he was in such a bad mood. His response alarmed her. She knew that business was slow, but such an unprecedented number of layoffs was, well, unprecedented. How could Broxley downsize 90 percent of his workforce? She knew that Boise had said 90 people, but since there were only 28 employees, he must have misspoken. This was what she related to the assistant supervisor, Chloe Bamberger.

“Ninety percent!” Bamberger gasped. “He may as well close down the whole company!”

Before she went home and shared the bad tidings with her husband, Kyle, Bamberger inadvertently shared the news with Eureka Breslin, Chaplin’s administrative assistant, who overheard Bamberger’s end of the conversation. Breslin confided with her respective husband, Stan, that Doldrum Enterprises was going out of business.

“She said, ‘He’s going to close down the whole company.’”

On Monday morning, Broxley was planning on making the dreaded announcement. But he was spared by an unexpected chain of events. The still volatile Chloe Bamberger was on the telephone with a friend, complaining about her “monster of a boss,” who was planning on shutting down the entire operation.

“Can you believe this man?” she said to her high school pal, Anna Retlick. “Seven years on this job, and what do I get for a Christmas present? A pink slip! Well, if he wants to lay off … Whatever. That’s fine. That’s just fine!”

Her voice was louder than she imagined, loud enough for Iris Garcia, who was vacuuming next door in Chaplin’s office, to overhear. But a closed door and a running vacuum can distort words. “Fine” might become “five.” Nevertheless, Garcia took it upon herself to speak to Broxley.

The boss was on the telephone when she knocked on his door.

Finishing his conversation, Broxley hung up. “Come in.”

Garcia stepped across the threshold, closing the door softly behind her.

“I am sorry to bother you, Mr. Broxley, but I heard a bad rumor that I hope is not true.”

Broxley waited for her to continue.

“Are you gonna lay off five people?”

Stunned, Broxley said nothing … at first. He folded his arms across his chest. How did she know? Of course, he concluded.

“No, Iris,” he replied cheerfully. “I’m not going to lay off five people. Only one.”

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  1. Hi Allen,

    I just realized this was sent from you…
    Wonderful story as usual and the best ending as usual!!!

    Maria Glass

  2. This story is wonderful as usual Allan. You always have the best endings!!


  3. Everything my friend Allan Heller writes is a joy to read. He presented this to our Writers’ Group which meets in the coffee shop of the Willow Grove (PA) Giant Supermarket.

    Loved reading it the second time around.

    BTW, this Friday Fiction is a great venue for short stories.

    Ruth Z Deming


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