PINELLAS PARK — The ashes lay in a white wooden urn, on a shelf in a locked room at the Anderson-McQueen Cremation Tribute Center. A sticky-backed, computer-generated label identified the remains: Brown, Steven. DOB 6/20/52.
The urn had sat on the shelf for about four weeks, next to the labeled remains of others. As the main repository in Pinellas County for unclaimed remains, it represents a kind of mezzanine level between a body's discovery and its dispensation.
If no family came forward to claim Brown's ashes in the next three months, they would be dumped in the Gulf of Mexico.
But on Tuesday, a key fit into the lock. An Anderson-McQueen employee retrieved Mr. Brown's urn and handed it to a courier.
On the other end, someone was waiting.
• • •
In better times, Bob and Cheri Gilman drove down from Illinois to see Cheri's brother, Stevie, every six months or so. Stevie had introduced them at a dance club in Decatur, Ill., in 1970, when both were teenagers.
Too much time had passed — about 20 months — since their last visit to Stevie. He had called a few days before Christmas, but by February his cell phone had been disconnected. They decided to head south.
Keeping up with Stevie's whereabouts could be challenging. The last time they came down, he was living in his taxi.
The Gilmans weren't worried. They knew they could find Stevie at Bottles Pub on Park Boulevard. If he wasn't there, someone there would know how to find him.
On July 24, Bob Gilman entered Bottles and asked a barmaid if she had seen Stevie.
The barmaid retrieved a newspaper. On a St. Petersburg Times obituary page from June 20, Steven Brown's photo stared beside a headline, "'Down-to-earth guy leaves a mystery."
Gilman walked outside to tell his wife.
• • •
The Brown siblings had scattered in adulthood. Stevie went into the Army. He was decorated as a sharpshooter, but was discharged in 1976 after a year and a half of service, records show. The Army booted him for smoking pot, his family said.
Brown moved around: Arizona, Arkansas, Florida. He worked as an electrician, then for Yellow Cab. He had a respiratory disorder that got worse with age.
More than a year ago, he rented a room in Pinellas Park at the end of a dirt road. He helped owner Jo Ann Mills salvage scrap aluminum.
Brown was intensely private, even standoffish to neighbors. But he had a soft side that he only sometimes revealed.
Brown's respiratory problems worsened. He trailed an oxygen hose wherever he went. In several months, his weight dropped from 130 pounds to 80 pounds.
He moved to a makeshift tent in the yard, saying it was hard to breathe in the house. He died there June 15.
Beyond the vaguest rumors of a brother here or a niece there, Brown had no next of kin anyone knew of. His body went to A Life Tribute in Gulfport, one of two Anderson-McQueen subsidiaries in the county that serves as an intake point for unclaimed remains. It gets about 500 unclaimed remains a year.
Funeral staff in Gulfport and Largo hold bodies for several days. If no family comes forward, the remains are cremated and sit on a shelf for 120 days.
If these remains are still unclaimed, funeral staff take the urns — a few dozen a month, on average — out to sea. The staffers scatter the ashes on the water, 3 miles off St. Pete Beach.
• • •
Cheri Gilman was waiting for her husband in the parking lot behind Bottles Pub. He returned with news that Stevie was dead.
"She just broke down and started crying," Gilman said.
He started making phone calls. He reached A Life Tribute, where director Michele Scalisce told him to pick up the remains Tuesday afternoon.
That day, the couple talked about Stevie before going inside.
He didn't ask for much or want much, his sister said.
And yes, he was very private, perhaps even painfully shy. He had told his sister why that was.
Seems Stevie was once in love. In Arizona, quite a few years ago. His girlfriend died in a car crash, along with their unborn child. He was never the same after that.
Inside the funeral home, the Gilmans showed their identification and signed some papers. A staff member handed over the urn to Cheri Gilman.
The Gilmans put the ashes into their van and headed back to Illinois. They arrived Thursday night. Cheri Gilman put the white urn with her brother's ashes on the fireplace mantle.
It's his home now.
Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or firstname.lastname@example.org.