Michael Ross was once rich and a prominent citizen. His home had been featured in Architectural Digest. He was accustomed to the finer things in life. He was polite and knew his manners. He reported he was from old money. He knew how to make you feel ingratiated to him. When he came to Phoenix Project he had lost everything and now his health was failing. Strangely none of this relieved him of his regal attitude. He demanded a lot of things. Now being demanding was not necessarily a bad thing. Some people demand to ensure they receive the services. Others demand things because they wanted attention. He demanded things because he was Michael Ross.
Michael was not an individual I would have naturally taken a liking to, as they say, but he showed me he could grow even when I doubted it. He wanted a room to himself when it was customary to have a roommate. He did eventually have a room to himself. He ran off roommates with his attitude and I concluded he needed to be by himself. He was special but not in the way he thought he was. But Michael was one of those people who no one wanted to live with, but they would follow him. He was full of ideas and adventures to be had. Because some of our clients were addicts, we did not allow the use of alcohol and drugs to create a safe environment for them. One time after I had quit for the day, an errand carried me by the group home. I noticed one of our clients leaving the convenience store, headed back to the home, with what looked like a brown bag of alcohol. I completed the errand and made a surprise visit to Phoenix Place because I knew that our resident manager was off for the evening.
When I came in no one was in the house, but loud music was coming from the beautiful courtyard out back. So I went to the courtyard: the music was playing, there was dancing, and over by the patio table and umbrella were several residents with Michael holding forth with a martini glass in his hand. Where did he get a martini glass I thought? I could hear the song in my head “You are so vain you probably think this song is about you” as I watched him. When everyone saw me eyes, opened wide and jaws dropped. I do not usually have that effect on parties I go to. I noticed under the patio table several brown bags. I could see the residents scurrying to hide the bottles on the table. Michael sat there calm as a cucumber. I went to the table and asked what everyone was drinking: they offered various non-alcoholic options. The unfortunate ones with bottles beside their chairs I asked for the bottles and told them to wait outside of my office. Although it had been apparent by the glances everyone gave Michael he was the ringleader, I did not yet have real proof of his guilt. He sat there in his seat with confidence. I asked what was in his glass; he replied coke. He had once told me he liked vodka and one of the bottles at the table was vodka. I knew it was vodka and coke but it would not have enough of a smell for me to confirm with a whiff. Michael grinning, looked at me and said knowingly, you can sip it if you want. He knew that people were scared of drinking after Persons Living with AIDS; he had me. In my mind I started calculating what to do. In our education programs we teach that you cannot contract AIDS through saliva or drinking after someone; of course I had never knowingly tested this fact. But to his dismay and the astonishment of all the others I took the glass and had a swig. It was vodka.
He looked at me horrified and his reaction surprised me. He was angry at me not for being caught but he was ashamed that he had put me in that position. He was not as convinced as me about the contraction of the disease. He said you should not have done that; you have a child and a wife. For the first time I saw a Michael who was pleasant to be with and not so smug.
Michael survived the alcohol incident and remained in the house. But the person I saw once smug I now saw subtle changes. One of those changes was the creation of one of the most unusual relationships at the house. He developed a friendship with Freddie, a black, straight, uneducated young man who had been homeless most of his life. The exact opposite of who he was. Yet these two people who would in other circumstances would have not stayed in the same room with each other took care of each other whenever the other became sick. It was a friendship made in the crucible of dying, but it was solid. It was so solid that when Michael developed dementia, a product of AIDS, he would call out to Freddie as if he was in his former house and Freddie was his houseboy. “Hey boy bring me some martini and cake right now”. Freddie, who would have ordinarily executed anyone for saying this in that manner, came to me and said I better get him under control or one of the residents would hurt him. We did what we could.
Michael’s dementia would cause one of the biggest mysteries of the house. One of our community activists, who was living with us and was a popular waiter at one of Savannah’s upscale restaurants, had moved in to the house. He had constant visitors. Michael had become a self-appointed guardian of him. To our sorrow we had found the activist dead in his bed with an unnatural contorted look on his face. This did not mean anything to us at first; many folk had died with similar grotesque looks on their faces. The problem was that Michael, in full bloom dementia, came crying to a staff person and had said he had smothered him with a pillar to take him out of his pain. Besides the look of death on the activist’s face and Michael’s full blown dementia confession, there was no other evidence that he had committed the act. His mother was not interested in an autopsy but was angry that such a thing might have happened. Michael for his part came in and out of reason and was making all manner of other confessions that we were sure were not true. An agreement was made by all parties not to look for what was probably not there. Michael would die a month later.
Many years later I often think mournfully of the mother and the doubt that rests in her breast of how her son died. I also often think of the staff Michael had confessed to. It would have not made much difference in the lifespan of the activist. Yet it is the gnawing doubt, the unanswered question, and a hurt left behind to those who tried hard to be a safe place at all times for everyone, even the arrogantly rich that will remain in the shadows of their minds. Walking on the edge of the abyss will always leave its scar.