The journey of Judge Joan Lefkow

Lefkow exhales half a laugh. She says, "Back when life was normal."

Back when life was normal, these rooms, closets and drawers could barely contain all the stuff that gave that life its weight and shape.

Look, says Lefkow now, all these earrings that have lost their mate. She polishes one on her jeans. And all these old credit cards. She goes in search of scissors. Here's a dusty flamenco doll Michael bought in Spain. She finds the vacuum cleaner and draws the cleaning brush over each tiny crease in the doll's skirt.

Dawdling in the clutter, she slows the dismantling of her life.

"I always had this desire for order," she says, pawing through her bedroom dresser. She plunges a dress into a plastic bag. She sighs. She slumps.

"But there is no order in life. It's all a fantasy."

Now every object is a memory, a decision. And every now and then, a laugh.

"Darryl!" calls a voice from the hall.

Darryl McPherson is the head marshal on Lefkow's protective detail. He's 31, trim and nimble, a former Alabama college baseball player who surveils the world around the judge with sharp eyes that used to watch for fastballs.

In these strange weeks McPherson has become brother, friend, handyman and coach to the Lefkow women. He scored them tickets to Oprah. The girls gave him one of their father's Brooks Brothers ties.

"Darryl, look!" says Helena Lefkow now, sauntering into the bedroom. Pretty in a fragile way, animated by a flinty mind, she makes it easy to imagine her mother at 25.

She dangles one of her mom's old party dresses, blue and black, short and strapless, in front of McPherson, who sits vigil in her father's rocking chair.

Judge, says the marshal, that dress would still look good.

The judge smiles. Extends a hand. Touches the old dress.

"Michael loved me in that kind of thing," she says.

Michael. Michael who, one of his sisters says, brought out the beauty in Joan, who helped the Kansas country girl believe in herself while she made him, the suburban boy, feel worldly.

Michael, whose own clothes--long-sleeve shirts, suit coats, pants jackknifed over hangers--droop in the bedroom closet, where they'll linger for months before she can let them go.

Sometimes she'll stand alone and press the fabric to her face, searching for his scent, for proof of life.

She never finds it.