George Spivey purposefully kept his room bare. A twin bed pushed up against one wall. A dog-eared Bible resting on a bedside table. A portable color television and a radio, along with three cans of pop and a bag of potato chips, sitting atop a scratched wood desk. A white plastic chair. And a Fender bass guitar leaning against a wall. He had no desire to make this home. He wanted to do nothing to alter its impermanence. Five months earlier, George had been released from a federal prison in West Virginia after serving ten years for possession of a handgun while guarding a heroin sale. As part of his release, the authorities required him to stay six months at this halfway house run by the Salvation Army, a decaying three-story red-brick building on the city’s near West Side. The constant noise, mostly men arguing and complaining in abundantly loud voices, was a vestige from their time in prison. The odor of perspiring men. The strangers. The rules. It felt less like a celebration of what could be than a reminder of what was.

From AN AMERICAN SUMMER by Alex Kotlowitz.

Copyright © 2019 by Alex Kotlowitz. Reprinted by permission of Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC.

George, who was thirty-nine, had put on weight in prison and was a bear of a man, the extra pounds piling around his center. He had a shaved head and a light beard and seemed preternaturally calm, almost sphinxlike. It was hard to read him, especially given his reticence. Yet while it may not have come across in his demeanor, he was determined to remake his life. He had just started an entry-level woodworking program. One of the counselors at the program told me that they were reluctant to admit George because of his limited work experience. “But,” she told me, “he impressed us with something else: his character and the way he presented himself.” They came to so admire his purposefulness, they later nominated him for student of the year among a national network of job reentry programs.

Though George didn’t work on Saturdays, he had a pass for the day to attend his church, where he was the choir director. He awoke at 6 a.m. without an alarm; he was accustomed to getting up early from his years incarcerated. He headed downstairs for breakfast and ended up at a table of newcomers, men just out of prison. He didn’t say much, as was his custom, and ate his pancakes and sausage in silence. He returned to his room, made his bed, and showered. He then hopped on a city bus to the Christian Greater Rock Baptist Church, a small storefront house of worship two miles west.

George most looked forward to the afternoon. He had planned a visit to his ex-wife and his two children, twins, a boy and a girl. When he went away to prison, they were seven. They were now eighteen. He had remained close to his son, Daquan, despite their distance, but their relationship was complicated. Early on, they had written to each other virtually every week. The letters spoke to how much Daquan missed his dad.

Dear Daddy

Hello how are you doing in there. I hope you doing alright. I miss you so much. I wish you was home I’m dying to see you home with my mom in person, but you are in that dump I only could see you on the picture or hear you on the phone. Dad don’t you know I love you so much I want you to see how much I’ve grown and how I look.


From: your son Daquan Spivey

When Daquan was eleven, he drew a likeness of Dino the Dinosaur and wrote:

I love you and miss you. You are the best dad that I ever know. Kiss. Kiss. Draw me something back soon. Love you with all my heart.

Soon the letters had more serious inquiries. When Daquan had problems with girls, he’d ask for guidance. When he thought of getting his name tattooed on his arm, he asked his dad for permission. In prison George learned to play bass guitar, and occasionally he’d send home videos of his makeshift prison band. Daquan took immense pride in the fact that he had a father in his life, even if he wasn’t accessible. But there were moments when he seemed upset, if not resentful that on a fundamental level his father had failed him. Daquan joined a mentoring program at his high school, VOISE. Early on, he scolded his mentor, John Robinson: You’re not my dad. I’m actually one of the students who has a positive male role model in his life. Robinson thought it unusually direct. What do you mean by that? he asked. Daquan replied, Most of these kids don’t have a dad in their life, but mine’s in mine. Robinson says there was a boastful yet defensive quality about it. On Facebook, Daquan once posted,

I Had To Teach Myself . . . #Self-Made

Daquan, one of his teachers told me, “carried himself differently than a lot of the kids.” He was, she said, shy among teachers, but very thoughtful, careful about what he said. He was like his dad in this regard. He struggled at school but held his own, and like many of the students at VOISE had plans to attend college.

Daquan, his teachers said, sometimes seemed bored, like he didn’t care, but those close to him knew it was just an affectation. One teacher told me that some thought him “cold,” but she said it was insecurity, not distance. Once at a dress rehearsal for a talent show, he got stage fright and tripped over the lyrics of a rap song he had written. Students heckled him, and he stormed off the stage, refusing to perform in the show. “He was usually so confident,” his music teacher, Candice Davenport, told me. “And onstage you saw this little boy trapped inside this little man. He seemed so vulnerable.” Daquan, Davenport said, was different from the other students. He had two piercings in his lower lip and wore large glasses that made him look unusually hip. On his Facebook page, he posted about girls and smoking weed, but he also posted pithy reflections which read almost like haikus of daily living:

Headphones In . . . Volume All The Way Up . . . I Can’t Hear Shit, . . . Good Moment

Dont Push Someone Away & Then Expect Them To Still Be There When You’re Ready.

Respect My Elders? Ummmm No, . . . I Respect Whoever Respects Me, Regardless Of Age

Missing Someone Is “A Part” Of Loving Them, Because When You’re “Apart,” . . . You Realize How Strong

When George came home from prison, he visited the school to thank Robinson for watching over his son. I will do everything possible to make sure he doesn’t make the mistakes I made, George told Robinson. Daquan refused to visit his dad at the halfway house because, he said, it felt too much like prison. George felt the distance, the tentativeness. He got on Daquan, wanted to know if he was in a gang. I’m gonna whip you if I find out, George told him at one point. I’m too old to get whupped, Daquan shot back. Daquan in fact didn’t belong to a gang, but George worried nonetheless. George told Daquan he needed to remove his piercings. Daquan refused. They were cautiously circling each other, trying to figure each other out.

After choir practice at his church, George still had a few hours before he needed to be back at the halfway house, so he caught a bus to his ex-wife’s house, where there was a neighborhood party. Daquan had been after him to come by, and so he was excited to go. In shorts and a button-up shirt, George hung out in the backyard, where his ex-wife’s family was barbecuing. Daquan popped in periodically, one time cajoling his dad to play him one-on-one in basketball. Come on, old man, Daquan urged. Think you can beat me? George laughed, and told him another time. You scared? Too old? Daquan shot back. Daquan disappeared with one of his best friends, Lomeck Johnson, and returned an hour later and sank into a couch near the kitchen. He asked his dad to fix him something to eat. Who you talking to? George replied lightheartedly.

I’m talking to you, Pops. Fix me up a plate.

You better get up and fix it yourself, George told him.

Daquan got up, and his dad smiled. This feels good, George thought to himself. It feels, well, normal.

Daquan ate a plate of ribs and spaghetti, and as he prepared to leave, he took the red-and-white Chicago Bulls cap off his head and handed it to his dad. Matches your shoes, he said. George smiled. His son was paying more attention than he thought. Then Daquan and Lomeck hopped on their bikes to pedal to a neighborhood street festival nearby. George left as well, since he needed to return by his six o’clock curfew. When he got back to the Salvation Army, he placed his son’s Bulls cap on his dresser, washed up, and wandered the halls for a while, catching up with some of the others there. Tired from the day, he was in bed by nine.

A couple of hours later, he was awoken by his cell phone. It was his daughter, Daquanta. She seemed out of breath. Something about Daquan.

He’s lying there, not moving, she said, her voice becoming slurred by her hysteria.

What do you mean, he’s just lying there?

He won’t move.

George got out of bed, and with his daughter still on the phone, he found one of the officers in the hallway and told her he needed to find out what was going on, what had happened to his son. And then his daughter told him, Daquan’s been shot. George, ordinarily restrained, started crying. A guard gave him a hug. Another man on probation put his arm on George’s shoulder and walked him up and down the hallway, trying to help him catch his breath. Word came down that he could leave for a few hours, more if it was needed, and so he called a friend, a fellow student at the trade school, who picked him up and drove him to the West Side.

There, on a street of three-story apartment buildings and single- family homes, the police had blocked off the alley with yellow tape strung from utility pole to utility pole, a sight so familiar in parts of Chicago that there are times you can see pieces of yellow tape fluttering from a phone pole like remnants of party decorations. When George got there, people were milling about, the shrill wails of women piercing the summer night. A detective told him that his son had been shot by two guys who rode up on bicycles, asking his son and his friend who they were with, meaning what gang did they belong to. They apparently mistook Daquan and his friend for rival gang members. Daquan’s friend was shot in the side but lived. George remembers so little of those hours, as the body of his son, covered by a white sheet, his sneakers peeking out, lay in the alley. He alternately pleaded with the police to let him see his son and to have his son’s body removed. The body lay out there for five hours, so long it made the newspapers. The police said they were just following procedure. But to George and others it felt disrespectful. Who leaves a dead boy lying in an alley through the night? (Pete Nickeas, the Chicago Tribune reporter, happened to be there that night and told me, “They didn’t need to keep that body out. It wasn’t right.”) At 4 a.m. the police let George and his ex-wife under the yellow tape to visit their son’s body, and as George walked down the alley the police pulled the sheet back. George was disoriented, and he hollered at his son, Stop playing. Get up.

A couple of hours later, in the early-morning light, George sat on the front stoop of a nearby home, dressed in a red, button-up shirt with an American flag sewn on the front pocket, a Chicago Tribune reporter filming him. He seemed neither sad nor tired. He seemed wistful, his voice, as usual, quiet and soothing, like a slow jazz number. “I guess some guys rode up on a bike and started shooting at him. I mean, I really don’t know why. I don’t understand,” he told the reporter, beginning a ritual practiced after most shootings: looking to make sense of what just happened—and then defending the honor of the deceased. “My son wasn’t involved in any kind of gang activity or anything of that nature,” he told the reporter, in an effort to offset what he knows everyone’s thinking: Your son did something to deserve this. He continued, “To tell you the truth, he was a pretty likable kid. He got good grades in school. He loved basketball, made music. He loved to rap. He worked. He was planning to go to college. He didn’t cause any kind of problems.”

Before George headed back to the halfway house, another reporter, from DNAInfo, a news website, asked him about his son, and George recounted what he said was his fondest memory of Daquan: when he was seven, he sat at the kitchen table reading a newspaper. “I asked him what he was doing, and he said, ‘I’m looking for a job,’ ” George told the reporter. “I said, ‘But you’re only seven.’ And he said, ‘Someone has to take care of you and Mom.’ ” What George didn’t tell the reporter is this: this memory of his son, his fondest, occurred right before he went to prison. “A part of me has been taken away. Stolen,” George told the reporter. “For what? Because you thought he was someone else.” The you referred to the shooter, but in some ways, though George didn’t say this—he didn’t have to—you could be referencing all of us. My son, he was trying to say, wasn’t who you think he was.

In the following months, once George got out of the halfway house, he worked as a cabinetmaker and spent the evenings by himself, drinking, Crown Royal and Hennessy. He put on more weight. He lived with his grandmother. He rarely went out. And then he logged on to a dating site, PlentyOfFish, and went on a date with a young woman, Chrishion Spriggs. They had dinner at MacArthur’s, the soul-food restaurant on the West Side, and then rode the Madison Street bus downtown and back, lost in conversation. It felt good. He didn’t talk much about Daquan, but he did tell her that he had had a son who’d been killed. On the next date, when George came by her house, he showed her pictures of Daquan on his iPhone and shared with her the Chicago Tribune’s video interview of him, which had been posted online. George seemed so proud of him, she would tell me later, and regretful that they never had a chance to fully repair what had been broken. He found videos of Daquan dancing and would play them for Chrishion. She admired George’s reticence but could also be frustrated by it. She had never dated anyone who had had someone close to them murdered, and wanted to know more so she could console him. “When he talks, just let him talk,” she told me, “because you might not have that opportunity again.” He struggled with what to tell people when they asked if he had children. She told him to be honest, and so he would say, “I have twins, but my son is deceased.”

When they moved in together, in an apartment in a near West suburb, George placed his Chicago Bulls cap on the top shelf of their closet. He explained to Chrishion that Daquan had given this to him on the day he was killed. He wasn’t letting go of it. He had had it dry-cleaned and kept it in the clear plastic. Sometimes George sits on their beige living room couch, flipping through Daquan’s Facebook page, which is still live and which his friends still post to.

I miss you so much bro. On everything, it annoys me it’s been soo long, like I’m making this shit up bro. This ain’t no dream man, why you had to leave me? We were never apart, I ain’t gone get another you. Everything I love bro, I’m hurting. I love you man. Lamark Gray

Remember dat day we got suspended for arguing about pouring milk on me . . . We wasn’t even gone fight . . . I just know wasn’t no milk touching me lol Tarik Taylor

Heyyy I jus wanted to say miss yu nd happy thanksgiving I wish yu was here to see all ur friends cause we have all grown up and family Makayla Jackson

In my dream, you was laying right next to me ☹, only for me to wake up and realize its my pillow Priesha

I don’t want to be on Facebook bro ☺ 💯 but I ain’t got nobody else to talk to. Come back . . . Where can we meet? Lamark Gray

The day is like an itch. George scratches and scratches at it, and at times it seems to work. It goes away. He forgets about it. And then it’s back again. One time I sat with George in his apartment’s living room, on the couch, dirty clothes piled in a corner, his DJ’s turn-table on a high table, and as we spoke he seemed distracted, as if he had just remembered an appointment. “Everything okay?” I asked. He seemed startled. He nodded. “I hate talking about this,” he said. That was a half-truth. I hadn’t seen George in several months, and he had emailed to check in, to ask if we could get together again. This is grief. You feel ripped in half. Half of you wanting to retreat, to disappear, to find a place where no one asks questions. And then there’s the part of you that wants to remember, has to remember because if you don’t, not only will the day cease to exist but so will the reality of that moment. And if that happens, you start to think the person is still there, in the next room, down the street, at school, in the park, somewhere near enough that you start thinking about what might have been. George wonders if he and Daquan would’ve gone fishing together. If Daquan would’ve gone crazy over his Chevy Malibu with its twelve speakers. If Daquan and he would’ve played music together.

George told me that after Daquan was killed and after he got out of the halfway house, he sought out Daquan’s friends. “They told me Daquan was so glad I was home,” he said. George then got up and told me he had somewhere to be.