The journey of Judge Joan Lefkow

"So," she says, back in her chambers, her grin mixed with a wince, "how'd I do?"

"We got one under our belts, Judge," says her assistant, Krys Juleen, and hugs her boss, hard.

"You want some coffee?" asks a clerk.

"Do you have coffee?" Lefkow says.

"It's all made."

Over her fifth cup of the day, Lefkow leans back in her desk chair. Chicago flexes outside the plate glass windows, a sweep of mighty towers and a great turquoise lake, her city, always changing and enduring.

She tilts her head. "I'm very much intrigued," she says, "by how much we live in the present."

- - -

That night, she brings flowers to a friend's home for dinner with three judges, women who often lunch together in the courthouse.

"I went back to work today," she says softly.

How'd it go? her friends cry.

"It felt good."

Over pasta and wine, they chat like any gang of friends, about jobs, politics, the Supreme Court, kids, nutritionists.

"You're eating much more now, Joan," says one.

"I put back all the weight I took off," Lefkow says. She laughs and shrugs.

"I didn't mean that."

Soon the coffeemaker is popping and Lefkow empties two big grocery sacks on the table.

"So there's the mail."

Condolence letters. She has received more than a thousand. Her friends hold note-writing parties to address envelopes while she signs cards.

"My heart goes out ... " "The world has been cruelly robbed ... " "We feel so helpless ..."