How Green Was My Cactus We've pursued a career together, my spiky little deskmate and I. But I got busy and forgot about him. Is it too late for friendship to regenerate?
By Stanley Bing

(FORTUNE Magazine) – Snapshot No. 1: 1981. It's a bright, plump, new Christmas cactus! Hey, bud. How you doing? About...eight inches high? Plain white plastic pot. Lots of juicy new leaves. When the holiday season comes, it will sprout bright-red flowers. Pinch back the weaker shoots now and then, and it'll sprout all over the place, I bet. I like my cactus. I think it's against the rules to have one on your desk around this place, but to hell with that. I'm a rebel.

Funny, I don't remember ever buying it or carrying it into the building or placing it on my pristine, impersonal desk. It's possible that it was simply here when I arrived as a hired gun to do a study on the use of modem technology in remote water-meter reading. I wrote my findings on an IBM Selectric with a Courier 12-point ball. They don't make those anymore, do they?

Snapshot No. 2: 1984. Here's my green dude now, a bit less bushy but nonetheless pretty spunky looking. How's it going, pal? At his base, I see barklike stuff, and a couple of his peripheral shoots appear a tad mangy. But, hey. There's still quite a bit of avoirdupois on his bones, and a lot of the time when he loses a leaf, I just stick it in the soil and in a couple of days it's growing a whole new limb there. Nice plant. Down, boy! Woof!

I'm in a different office now, on a much higher floor. There's more light up here, and a couple of people report to me, but a lot of the things I'm dealing with are tiny and idiotic. A trained chimp with an MBA from anyplace but Wharton could do them. It's not bad, though. At the end of the day I feel like I just farmed a couple of dozen acres with my ol' mule Bessie. Sometimes I sit in my little space and stare down at the park and wonder what it would be like to throw a Frisbee there for a while. But that passes.

Snapshot No. 3: 1988. I'm spending more time on the road now, making new friends inside the corporation, developing the swagger that precedes even a brief stay in senior management. On a very special Friday I decide, Screw it, and contact the office services department for a real ficus. It arrives in a handsome green pot and receives a place of honor by the window, where it takes several years to lose all its leaves and die screaming.

All the while, my guy here does his job as a plant. He's not buff or crispy. He just performs as required without overt sparkle. The leaves are a bit flatter than they were, and at their edges are tiny brown hairs that can harden up in dry weather and convey a truculent spikiness. There's still a lot more green than brown about him. But it occurs to me, as I continue to labor without a vice presidency in sight, under a boss who considers excellent filing to be a top priority, that only a moron spends a whole lot of time relating to a plant.

Snapshot No. 4: 1991. We've been downsized, and our core corporate function has retracted like a tortoise in its housing to a smaller, incomparably plush suite of offices high above the noise and scuffle. The building is world famous. My view would make a 19th-century man weep at the achievements of civilization.

Now, where is that plant? I know I didn't throw it away when I moved from our old gulag. Here it is. Amazing. Still basically all right. A little worn, though. Skinny. Its lower extremities are almost completely armored over with a brown, barklike casing of some sort. I guess I should water it once every couple of months, really, just to be a nice guy. But what difference does it make? It's a cactus. I'm a vice president. Get it? Good.

Snapshot No. 5: 1995. We've been upsized. My office is in a corner. Many people are excessively nice to me. I'm very, very busy. Did I mention I was busy? Well, I am. Get out of here. I can't tell you what's up with my plant now. I've got a meeting about a future meeting that will set up a very important meeting that will help position me for an informal review with the chairman.

Snapshot No. 6: Last week. It's strange. I walked in this morning, much as I did on that morning in May nearly 20 years ago (except, you know, not), and suddenly noticed Edgar here, in the corner of a small table on which I keep my second phone and a wooden egg shaped like Boris Yeltsin that holds successively tinier ovoid representations of the leaders of the Soviet Union, from Lenin to Gorbachev. I stood there in the middle of my office and did nothing for a minute, even though I had many extremely important things to do. And in that moment, Mr. Plant sort of ... appeared to me. Yes, that was him, all right. I went over and picked him up. Hey, Ed. How you doing, li'l buddy?

Oooh. How light he feels. Nothing to him at all. And a grizzled brownish gray all up and down his spiny hide. A few wizened shoots hang limply from his desiccated arms. He has nothing to say to me, and I can't blame him. When was the last time I even noticed him? Months ago? Years, maybe. My jocular greeting rings a little hollow. His silence has a spunky, gritty feel to it. In that resentment I sense a chance for--what? Regeneration?

Come on. Who cares, anyhow? He's just a little slab of protoplasm.

I take him to my desk and set him on my blotter, sweeping away a huge, hateful pile of other people's problems, and regard my little pal for a few minutes. He now stands no taller than five inches from base to his topmost leaf, and he's crooked, too. I watch him for a while. He does nothing. I requisition a bottle of Poland Spring water from the little fridge down the hall and douse him with spring water at $1.25 the bottle. He thanks me by losing a few leaves, dropping them onto my desktop without further comment. I get a plastic cup and decide to soak his desiccated limbs in a sitz bath for a while. Then I put him on the ledge.

Snapshot No. 7: Today. 9 A.M. Hi. He's sitting here with me as I write this. He still looks bad, but a little better. Where he was just skin and skeleton a couple of days ago--is it my imagination?--there's a hint of beef here and there. Portions of him seem slightly upright, you know?

But I'm not kidding myself. He's been through a lot. There's only so much I can do for him now. The rest is up to him. He's got to want to live.

Hang in there, little man. Wherever I've been, there you were, in every office, every building, title, and CEO. Come on, bubba. Here's a nice patch of direct sunshine for you. How about some more dirt? See? Life is good, right? Sure it is.

Don't leave me, for Christ's sake!

By day, STANLEY BING is a real executive at a real FORTUNE 500 company he'd rather not name.