Bernard Franklin Peyton knew he didn't have much longer. Skin cancer had spread over his neck and head. He walked into the Nathan Adelson Hospice in Las Vegas. No family, he said, no address.
On the other side of the country, in Hudson, 84-year-old Mary Ann Steffes and her husband, Hal, went about the ritual they began 22 years ago: planning the annual Halloween party for disabled children at the Aripeka Elks Lodge.
These are generous, good-hearted people who have taken on many causes over the decades to improve their adopted community. But for all the joy she helped spread, Mrs. Steffes carried a sorrow that few outside her family understood.
She missed her son.
• • •
That's the word everyone uses when describing Frank Peyton. He answered Jeopardy! questions before the contestants on TV. If he didn't have a book to read, he'd scan the encyclopedias or a dictionary, including the one the Detroit News presented him in 1953 when he won a regional spelling contest as a child. They engraved his name on the cover.
In college, just for fun, he and his equally bright girlfriend would take each other's tests and ace them without studying.
Brilliant, but flawed.
Frank joined the Marines and served well for four years, exiting in 1964 with a good conduct medal and a badge for expert marksmanship. Those may have been his only dependable years.
A gentleman with an easy, polite manner, Frank excelled as a bartender at some posh country clubs and restaurants around Livonia, Mich. But then he would disappear for months. Once, he left behind the apartment his parents had paid to furnish. No explanation.
He loved to gamble. His brother Louie, eight years younger, said Frank would save all his earnings for six months to a year and then go to Las Vegas and blow it. But eventually, he would always make his way back home.
That happened again in 1987, a few years after Hal and Mary Ann moved into a home they built on a quiet street in Spring Hill. "One day I opened the front door and there he stood," his mother recalled. "I was just glad he was home."
At 46, Frank seemed ready to finally settle. He took a job tending bar at the Elks Lodge and the members loved him. He never forgot a favorite drink. But at home, he preferred to stay in his room and read. He didn't have friends, nor did he want any.
Then, in 1993, he left a note in the Elks Lodge cash register.
"Here's your keys," he wrote.
That was it.
He disappeared. This time for good.
• • •
Mary Ann refused to give up hope that Frank would knock on her door again. But he never even called. He left no public records trail. It was as if he had dropped off the Earth.
Two of his three brothers, Louie and Jim, live in Las Vegas. They always figured Frank would end up in that city because he loved to gamble. Once, Jim thought he saw him.
"I ran up to this guy all excited," he said, "and then felt like a fool."
A few weeks ago, as disabled children from Pasco and Hernando counties enjoyed another Halloween party at the Elks Lodge, Mary Ann asked Pasco Sheriff's Col. Al Nienhuis for advice. She agreed to make another check with the Social Security Administration for any information about Frank, even though she had struck out so many other times.
This time was different.
"I about fell over when they told me he was dead.''
Nienhuis helped her contact Las Vegas authorities, but there was no information about Frank. He had stayed clear of the law.
His brother Louie, 60, owns a successful business in Vegas. He got the death certificate, but the hospice would not surrender any personal effects.
"It was frustrating," he said. "They said I would have to file a court action. Mom just wants his possessions as a memento. It's not like Frank had anything. Fighting in court over some homeless guy's clothes just doesn't make sense."
Mary Ann, a prolific writer who has for years handled all the Elks Lodge's publicity, is thinking about writing the Nevada governor for help. "I just want something, maybe a ring, a watch, a pocket handkerchief. I don't care."
She has made progress on having Frank's ashes buried at the veterans cemetery at Boulder City, near Hoover Dam. Any expense, she says, will come from a life insurance policy she took out when Frank was a boy. She paid 10 cents a week until she satisfied the $146 premium. She didn't say how much the policy will pay. "But it isn't much."
She says her children have encouraged her to leave well enough alone, to stop dwelling on the son who chose to divorce himself from the family. He could have called if he had wanted, they tell her.
But mothers can't just stop loving their kids.
"All these years, I've wondered, 'Is he happy? Sick? Is he lying across some road hurt?' I wonder, is there something I could have done?"
She bowed her head and cried.
North Suncoast Editor Bill Stevens can be reached at (727) 869-6250 or by e-mail at email@example.com.