Lucy's breathing was frosty blasts in perfect rhythm as she ran along Sulgrave Road in Windsor Farms, the sound of her Nikes light on pavement as she perspired in the night. Colonial lanterns and lit-up windows did not push back the darkness or show her the way, but she had run this route since high school during the many holidays and vacations spent with her aunt. After four miles Lucy was in a meditative state, her mind free to attach itself to whatever it would. This wasn't necessarily a good thing.
Although she seemed cheerful enough, she was not in the best of spirits. Typically, she had spent the holidays avoiding her mother, who had not raised her, really, and had never made Christmas anything but an empty stocking wilted on the hearth. Lucy ran harder, sweat trickling beneath her turtleneck as anger heated her up and propelled her deeper into the black shadows of antebellum trees.
Her mother had sent her another scarf for Christmas, this one navy blue with fringe and once again, her initials monogrammed in a corner.
The monograms made it difficult for Lucy to donate the scarves to thrift shops or the Salvation Army, and, of course, this was her mother's point. Her mother's gifts were always self-centered and controlling. She did not care what Lucy wanted or who she was, and Lucy did not need another scarf for the rest of her life. She did not need another pocketbook or manicure kit or delicate watch with a stretch band. She was a federal agent who shot pistols and MP5's and flew helicopters. She ran obstacle courses, lifted weights, worked arson cases, made arrests, and testified in court.
Her mother, Dorothy, was so different from her sister Kay that Lucy did not see how they could have come from the same parents. Certainly Dorothy's IQ was more than adequate, but she had neither good sense nor judgment. She did not love herself and could not care for anybody else, no matter how hard she tried to fool people. Lucy would never forget her graduation from the Federal Law Enforcement Academy in Glynco, Georgia. Aunt Kay and Marino had been there. Lucy's mother had driven halfway there before turning around. She had sped back to Miami as she and her latest lover fought on the car phone.
Lucy kicked up her pace to seven-minute miles, her long strides closing in on her aunt's home. It bothered Lucy that Scarpetta was flying to Miami the following morning to visit her mother and Dorothy. Scarpetta would not return until the weekend, and Lucy would be alone through New Year's. Maybe she could get caught up on some of her cases.
"You sure you don't want to go with me? It's never too late," Scarpetta said, when Lucy walked into the kitchen, breathing hard, cheeks rosy.
"Oh, it's too late, all right," Lucy said, yanking off wool mittens.
"Taste this. Maybe a little more basil?"
Scarpetta dipped the wooden spoon in her special sauce and offered a taste to her niece. Lucy blew on the steaming sauce, touching it to her lips, taking her time as flavors played music on her tongue. She opened a bottle of Evian.
"I wouldn't do another thing to it," Lucy said with a heavy heart.
Her melancholy had intensified the instant she had walked into the house and noticed her Aunt Kay's luggage by the front door. Apparently, Scarpetta had finished packing while Lucy was running.
"It's not too late," said Scarpetta, who knew exactly how her niece was feeling. "You've got another week off. I worry about you being by yourself. This house can be awfully empty sometimes. I should know."
"I'm by myself all the time," Lucy told her.
She opened the refrigerator. She spied Marino's wicked eggnog and looked forward to being overcome by it.
"Being alone during the holidays is different," Scarpetta went on. "And yes, you've done that before, all too often. And never with my blessing."
She stripped more fresh basil from stems, sprinkling the herb into her sauce, stirring as she talked.
"If you refuse to deal with your mother and grandmother, there's not a thing I can do about it," she said. "But you can't hide forever, Lucy. There's always a day of reckoning. Why put it off? Why not see them for what they are and move on?"
"Like you've done?" Lucy said, as anger crept forth from hidden places in her heart.
Scarpetta set down the spoon. She turned around and looked her niece in the eye.
"I should hope you would figure it out long before I did," Scarpetta quietly said. "When I was your age, Lucy, I didn't have anyone to talk to. At least you have me."
Lucy was silent for a moment. She felt bad. So many times in her life she had wished she could take back a rude remark, an unfair accusation, a bruising insult, all directed at the only person who had ever loved her.
"I'm sorry, Aunt Kay," she said.
Scarpetta knew she was and had been before.
"But, well… Why should I go down there and be victimized?" Lucy started in again. "So I can thank her for another goddamn scarf? So she can ask me about my life? She doesn't even know I have a life, and maybe I don't want her to know. And maybe I'm not going down there so I can let her make me feel bad one more time in my life."
Scarpetta resumed cooking.
"You shouldn't let anyone make you feel bad, Lucy," she said. "I agree with you. But don't go off into stubborn isolation, spending morning, noon, and night on your computer or at the range. Share yourself with someone. That's what this time of year is all about. You're in the driver's seat now, not your mother or anyone else. Laugh, tell tales, go to the movies, stay up late. Friends. You must have one out there somewhere."
Lucy smiled. She had more than one, really.
"Invite them over here," Scarpetta offered. "I don't care who. There's plenty of room and plenty to eat."
"Speaking of that," Lucy said, "when are we eating and what's for dessert?"
Heavy footsteps were followed by Marino's rumpled self. He looked sleepy, his shirttail out, shoes off.
"It's 'bout time you got back, Miss ATF," he grumbled to Lucy. "You been holding up the eggnog."
He served it in whiskey tumblers, and they drank a toast to another year together.
Scarpetta's Holiday Pizza
Don't even consider creating this overwhelmingly hearty and delicious pie unless you have plenty of time and are willing to work hard in the spirit of unselfishness. This is a meal that is meant to make others happy. You don't go to all this trouble for yourself, and chances are, when your art is complete, you will probably be too weary to enjoy it unless there are leftovers for the following day, and usually there aren't.
Begin with shopping. Some of what you need requires visits to specialty shops or grocery stores that offer a variety of gourmet produce and imported cheeses. One of the most important ingredients that separates Scarpetta's pizza from all others is the whole milk mozzarella she uses. This comes in balls packaged in brine, and approximately four balls ought to be enough, but that's up to you, depending on how thick you like your cheese and how many pizzas you plan on making. Do not use skim mozzarella! You will also want to pick up half a pound or so of fontina and Parmesan. Flour is very important. Scarpetta has been known to stop at bagel stores and talk proprietors into selling her five or ten pounds of very high gluten flour. She likes her crusts crisp on the outside and chewy on the inside. You will need yeast.
As for the filling, you are in charge and can use whatever suits your taste. Scarpetta has her own choices, and for her post-Christmas blast she has a tradition, her own way of saving the best for last. It is a symbol of something better to look forward to, no matter the attitudes of neighbors wheeling out mountains of Christmas trash, making resolutions about exercise and diets, and saying goodbye to relatives they scarcely ever see.
Scarpetta includes the following on her shopping list: green peppers, onions, fresh herbs such as oregano and basil, fresh mushrooms, artichoke hearts, lean ground beef, pepperoni, smoked oysters, Italian sausage, crushed tomatoes (Progresso if you don't have fresh or canned homegrown), olive oil, fresh garlic, and the cheeses already listed. It is very important to remember that both the mozzarella and the vegetables will produce a lot of water when cooked. Therefore, we must take care of this problem in advance. Begin the night before by wrapping the balls of mozzarella in cheesecloth (or towels) and storing them in the refrigerator. Some of the liquid will be absorbed.
Chop and lightly cook the vegetables. Drain them in a colander, pressing out all liquid. (The broth can be saved for soup or stew.) Put vegetables in a large bowl and allow to cool. Mix in grated Parmesan and fontina cheeses. Now it's time to start the sauce. It's really very simple. Mix crushed tomatoes with herbs and plenty of pressed garlic and a few drips of olive oil. Allow to simmer. Begin working on dessert.
Scarpetta's Childhood Key Lime Pie
Without fresh limes, don't bother. Scarpetta is a hanging judge on this matter. The key lime tree in the backyard of her childhood home in Miami once bore an abundance of her favorite citrus fruit, and when days were hard and unyielding, Scarpetta would absent herself from the house to be soothed in the sunlight of the yard, where the solitary tree, not much taller than her father, leaned against the chainlink fence.
She would fill her pockets with key limes and gather them in her skirt. Scarpetta made key limeade and pies, and everybody felt just a little bit better. She carried key limes to her neighbors when she was hurting, lonely, and sad. Her family had just the one tree, and Scarpetta thought of it as hers. It began to die when she was in her late teens, and she consulted a number of greenhouses, horticulturists, the Department of Agriculture, and even a plant pathologist at Cornell, where she spent her undergraduate years. There was a citrus canker, she was told. It was wiping out thousands of key lime trees in south Florida.
She doused her tree with micronutrient spray and cleaned out the dead wood. She made certain the roots weren't being damaged by the lawn mower or the trunk wasn't being rotted by standing water. Her tree continued its decline, lesions in the stems, leaves turning yellow and drifting to the grass. Scarpetta's tree died long before she gave up on it. She would not let her mother cut it down.
These days, not surprisingly, key limes are very difficult to find, thus making the dessert all the more rare and wonderful. Scarpetta gets her limes from Florida Keys Key Lime Products by making generous donations to the Marine Resource Development Foundation, in hopes that science might yet save the precious fruit. She usually orders half a bushel a month and freezes the juice, which is why she happened to have some on hand the day after Christmas when she entertained Marino and Lucy. Scarpetta thawed half a cup, which also included a hint of grated rind.
Her crust is a very basic mixture of two cups of all-purpose flour kneaded with two-thirds of a cup of softened butter. Sprinkle a little water and spread the dough paper-thin in a pie pan. Bake until a light golden brown.
Mix the key lime juice with one can of Eagle Brand condensed milk (it works as well as anything made from scratch). Add a touch of salt and two barely beaten egg yolks. Stir until thickened. Pour the filling into the pie shell and lick the spoon and swipe the sides of the bowl with your finger when no one is looking. Don't waste a molecule of it. Whip up a quick meringue using the two leftover egg whites and two tablespoons of sugar. Beat until stiff but not dry and spread in thick peaks over the pie. Bake for maybe fifteen minutes until lightly brown. Return your attention to the main course.
By now your sauce should be getting very thick and rich. Continue to simmer and stir, and at least forty-five minutes before you're ready to assemble what everyone is impatiently awaiting, place a pizza stone in a very hot oven. Begin the crust by mixing one teaspoon of salt, a shake of sugar, and one teaspoon of active dried yeast with maybe a fourth of a cup of warm (but not hot) water. When frothy, add several cups of the high-gluten flour and a tablespoon of olive oil. Mix and knead on a floured surface for a good ten minutes. Place in a greased bowl and cover with a towel. Let this rise in a warm place.
Scarpetta favors a very simple salad of arugula or Boston lettuce, or whatever mixture of greens you wish. She might add tomatoes and shaved carrots and diced celery, but nothing more. Her dressing is a hearty red wine vinegar mixed with olive oil, pressed garlic, fresh ground pepper, and oregano. For the more robust appetites, she might add crumbled feta cheese. Do not toss the salad with the dressing until you are ready to call your guests to the table.
Now we are ready to create our pizza. When the dough has doubled in size, knead it some more, using your knuckles to press it out to the edges. Swipe olive oil on the pizza stone and center the dough on it, being careful not to make contact with the stone or set it on the wrong surface, as it is extremely hot. Spread a generous layer of sauce over the crust, followed by at least an inch of the meat/vegetable/cheese mixture. Squeeze the balls of mozzarella, removing as much fluid as possible. Pinch off pieces and place them over the top of the pie. Cover cookie sheets with aluminum foil and place On the second rack of the oven, as the pizza will drip no matter what. Place the stone on the top shelf, baking your pizza at the highest setting. Cook until the cheese is browning. Remove from the oven and allow to rest a moment as you serve the salad and pour a nice red burgundy. If white or red makes no difference, a Puligny-Montrachet is crisp and cleansing. You will have to eat Scarpetta's holiday pizza with a knife and fork.
On this night after Christmas, it was quiet all through the house as Scarpetta's guests sat around her table and began to eat and drink. After several lusty moments, Marino spoke first.
"Anybody don't want their oysters, you can hand 'em over here," he said.
"And how are we supposed to extract them from everything else?" Lucy wanted to know.
"Pick ' em out. Assuming your fingers are clean."
"Who's in charge of music?" Scarpetta asked.
The three of them looked at each other as they ate, then Marino scooted back his chair. He got up and went to the CD player, red-checked napkin tucked into the front of his shirt. He put on Patsy Cline.