LAND O'LAKES — High on its pilings, the wooden A-frame house looked like a ship's hull jutting over the fence at Paradise Lakes nudist resort.
Zebra skin, dark wood and mirrors covered the inside walls. On a white tiger rug, a 40-something woman with brown hair leaned back on her elbows, nude.
Beside her, Ronald Scharff occupied a multicolored Lay-Z-Boy. His shoulder-length silver hair was combed straight back, his skin 70 years of tan. Even with the distractions — the woman on the rug, the half-empty bottle of Calypso rum on the bar — he still dwelled Wednesday afternoon on his first love: The sweet girl he met 50 years ago in Long Island, who was taken from him by cancer after 41 years of marriage. And who made her way back into his life after her urn was found on the side of the interstate.
• • •
From his seat in the trackhoe on the shoulder of I-75 near Bruce B. Downs Boulevard, Eddie Frazier saw something down in the dirt that didn't look right. He pulled the dark, tarnished brass out of the brush. An urn.
Inside was a bag of ashes with a label: Janice Lee Scharff.
Frazier gave the urn to a Pasco sheriff's deputy, who entered the woman's name into a database. Ronald Scharff's name came up.
The phone call Saturday afternoon brought Scharff to tears. He explained what happened:
After Janice's death in 2007, he was dating Denise Barry, then 41. They were going to move to Bradenton. They loaded their belongings — including Scharff's dog, Babe, and the urn — into his 1999 GMC pickup truck.
Scharff was driving south on I-75. Another driver cut him off. He swerved, overcorrected and flipped at 70 mph.
Scharff made it out with no injuries. Babe was ejected and somehow landed safely beside the road. Their belongings were strewn hundreds of feet down the side of the highway. "I found spoons. I found everything. I couldn't find her," he said.
Scharff spent hours scanning the brush. He went back at least four times, then gave up. Until the deputy called.
Scharff had arranged to come to the property and evidence office beside the Pasco jail in Land O'Lakes at 2:30 Monday afternoon. TV news trucks huddled at the entrance. Scharff never showed.
He said he was given the wrong directions.
• • •
He spent the first half of this week thinking about Janice.
They met in 1962 in Long Island. She was 16. He was 19. He was going to pick up his girlfriend, Dorothy, to see Days of Wine and Roses at the drive-in. Dorothy said she had to babysit her siblings with her friend Janice, a girl with blond hair and porcelain skin. He took Janice instead.
They married in 1965 at Our Holy Redeemer Roman Catholic Church in Long Island and had a son a year later.
Scharff worked at PanAm airlines as an engineering officer. He brought Janice all over the world. In one of the magazines a passenger left behind, Scharff saw an ad for Sunshine Park Nudist Resort. He took her.
Maybe it was the nice people, the pool or the free feeling he got, he said. "We enjoyed it."
They bought a house in Anguanga, Calif. He owned the Diamond Bar in Los Angeles and the Jack Pot Motel in Las Vegas. Scharff wouldn't say how he made his money.
They decided they liked Florida, too, and bought a house in Sarasota, then another in Bradenton and the one in Paradise Lakes.
He relied on Janice to stand by him, "being my mate. Being my love. Taking care of bills."
Janice was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2004. She started chemotherapy.
In 2005, the monitor beside her bed at St. Joseph's Hospital in Tampa flatlined three times. Doctors resuscitated her.
"Why didn't you let me go?" she asked her husband.
"Because you're my bride," he said.
She held on until the cancer spread to her stomach lining. She died Jan. 27, 2007.
Scharff could hardly function without her.
"I was lost," Scharff said. "I wouldn't even make out a check."
He dated Denise Barry for two years. She said drinking was part of their lifestyle.
"I think that [Janice] may have been the rock that he relied on," she said.
They split up, and she later became Denise Lewis. Scharff took another woman. The one sitting on his floor Wednesday afternoon when he decided to go get Janice.
• • •
Scharff put on his clothes and drove up U.S. 41 to the property and evidence office. Babe rode in the Lincoln's passenger seat.
Waiting in the lobby, his hands shook. A deputy appeared at the office window. "Would you like your lady?" she asked him. "Oh, Lord. Yes."
His eyes grew red when she handed him the urn. He cradled it and kissed the top. He ran his hand along the urn's side like it might have been Janice's hip.
"Janice," he sobbed. "You're coming home, baby doll. You're coming home."