Selma, Alabama. The church is gone. All that remains of the Reformed Presbyterian Church is a log pile and some crumbled bricks. You can’t even tell it was a church.

There are 145-year-old beams, buried in the mud. Loose-leaf hymnal pages are scattered to the wind. This church used to be a school for freed slaves after the Civil War. It was a landmark. Now it’s rubble.

“Crazy, ain’t it?” says one local man, standing beside me on the sidewalk.

The man wears a University of Alabama ball cap. He is tall and lean, chewing something that requires him to spit occasionally. There are holes in his jeans and in his shoes. He lives nearby, and he’s surveying the church’s damage.

“Can’t believe it’s gone,” he says.

Last week, an EF-2 tornado tore through Alabama like a hellhound. This storm ripped into Dallas County, killed seven in Autauga County, then visited Georgia, where it killed two more. Including a little boy.

To quote my new friend, “This town got totally [bleeped], man.”

He’s right. Selma looks like

someone tried to wipe the city off the map. Rooftops were waylaid on front lawns. Live oaks look like fallen soldiers. An uprooted oak on Mabry Street was hurled into a century-old home.

Local churches got it, too. The steeple at Fairview Baptist was ripped off. Crosspoint Christian Church had 70 daycare kids and 14 staff members inside when the rooftop was sucked off.

Sheila Stockman was one of the teachers. “I was actually on the phone with my mother asking her where the tornado was. She said ‘It's heading directly to you!’”

My new friend and I are interrupted when a Toyota SUV passes us slowly. Maryland tags. Inside is a guy photographing damage from the driver’s window. He uses the kind of camera that costs more than dental school.

“Crazy, ain’t it?” says my new friend in mock disbelief.

“Those [bleeping]…

They called her Mama. Everyone at Waffle House knew her that way. Few knew her real name. To them, she was “Mama.”

“She was everyone’s mother,” said the Waffle House cook, standing over a flat-top stove. The older woman was cooking my eggs, reminiscing about the 69-year-old waitress who died suddenly two days ago.

The Opelika Waffle House is decorated with pictures of the late waitress. Mama. She was a white-haired woman, with a warm smile and the face of a matriarch.

“We started calling her Mama when her daughter got a job here. Her daughter would call across the dining room, ‘Hey, Mama!’ and we all thought that was hysterical. The name Mama just stuck.”

They would never call her anything else.

Mama worked for Waffle House for over two decades. There were ribbon-cut potatoes in her blood.

“She was middle-aged when she started working here,” said the cook. “She was born for this job. She brightened this whole place.”

Rebecca Ella Yarbrough lived in Opelika all her life. She grew up in Pepperell Mill Village,

near the old mill. Her life revolved around the mill. Rebecca’s first job was working as a textile weaver until the mill shut down. At which point Rebecca applied at Waffle House. On her first day, something just clicked.

“Being a waitress is all about personality. It ain’t about hard work. It’s about putting up with people’s B.S. It’s about personality. Some have it. Some don’t. Mama did. She ain’t never met a stranger.”

They tell me Mama treated you like you were family, no matter who you were.

“You coulda been a drunk, from off the street. But when you come in here, Mama treated you like the Prince of England. She loved everyone the same.”

Mama worked from Can to Can’t to support her family. She worked Thanksgiving. She worked doubles on Christmas. She took the New Year’s Eve shift. She…

I saw them picking up garbage. At the time, I was at a filling station, located in the wilds of rural Alabama. I was pumping gas when I saw three men.

They wore neon vests. They carried sharp sticks. They were meandering along the county highway, collecting litter and placing it into satchels.

They were old guys. Dressed like your granddaddy’s generation. Pants pulled up to their armpits, á la Fred Mertz. Between three of them, there were six hearing aids.

“We do this just because we can,” said one guy, using a sharp stick to stab a crumpled Wendy’s cup in the grass.

Another man chimed in. “Everyone claims they care about this country, but when you see the litter we see, most of’em are lying.”

They are in their eighties. The oldest is 86. The youngest is 81. “It’s good exercise, gets us outside, gets us moving. Gets the blood going. Cheaper than a membership to one of those gyms where everyone wears tight britches.”

Another man puts it a different way.

“You don’t stop going because you get old, you get old because you stop going.”

A few times each week, the old guys meet in the morning. They eat breakfast at some restaurant. Eggs and bacon and toast with lots of butter. All the things their doctors tell them not to eat.

They drink too much coffee. They tell the same stories they’ve been telling since Americans drove Packards. They flirt with their waitress. They visit the men’s room, which, at this age, they tell me can take about as long as dental school.

Then it’s time to go to work. They hop in the truck. They find a stretch of highway.

“We just drive until we see trash. Just last week, we saw a bunch of Mountain Dew cans scattered on the median, like someone just threw cans from their car. So we started there.”

It was late. I pulled into the campus after seven o’clock to attend my last class of the semester. My last college class. Ever. It was a night class.

In America, most self-respecting people my age were finishing supper, settling down to watch “Wheel of Fortune.” But I was in school.

I had been attending community college for 11 years. I had been taking a lot of night courses. Which meant that I had perfected the art of eating supper in my truck, on the way to class. I drove with my knees, ate with my hands, and controlled the radio with my big toe.

Supper often consisted of foil-wrapped tamales, purchased from Carmela, a middle-aged Mexican woman who visited our construction jobsites. Carmela traveled in a battered ‘84 Nissan Maxima that looked like a roving salvage yard.

Every time I’d buy a tamale, Carmela would pat my cheek and say, “Joo are very sweet boy, but joo need a bath, joo smell like goat butt.”

So parked my truck. I

rushed into class, smelling like the fundaments of a horned barnyard animal.

Eleven years it had taken me to finish school. Me. A middle-school dropout. My formal education ended in seventh grade, after my father took his own life with a hunting rifle. I simply quit going to school. I was a rural child. It wasn’t a big deal. Nobody seemed to care what rural dropouts did.

I got my first job hanging drywall at age 14. I started working in bars, playing music shortly thereafter. I had a lot of jobs. I hung gutter. I worked as an ice-cream-scoop. I was a telemarketer. I was a nobody. I was white trash.

Until I enrolled in community college.

I enrolled as an adult, and my life changed. I became alumni at Okaloosa-Walton Community College.

I completed high-school equivalency courses. I finished the collegiate coursework. It took me eleven years.…

He was unknown to you. But not to me. We were friends. Sort of.

Ours wasn’t a long lasting friendship, but we rode the school bus together. So I guess that made us friends.

He would save a seat for me; I would board the bus, walk the aisle, and plop on the cushion beside him.

He was funny. We laughed a lot. Some kids are just born to be funny.

He kept a journal of sketches. They were good. He could draw anything. And I remember when he trusted me enough to let me look through his journal. Inside were dozens of bald eagles.

“Why do you draw so many eagles?” I asked.

“‘Cause they’re cool, why else?”

He didn’t have many friends because he was shy, and shy people are like that. I was the same way.

Between the two of us we were so timid we squeaked. And if ever we saw each other outside the confines of the bus, we were even shy around each other.

When he got a part in the school play, nobody

was sure how it would go. The kid was so quiet he wouldn’t even raise a hand in class.

He was afraid to play football, he didn’t like baseball. He liked to read and draw instead.

Yet here he was playing Mayor Shinn in the Music Man.

I was in the musical, too. In fact, I played one of the guys in the barbershop quartet. Our quartet sang a song named “Sincere.”

I still remember the lyrics:

“How can there be any sin in sincere?
“Where is the good in goodbye?
“Your apprehensions confuse me dear,
“Puzzle and mystify...”

There are some things you don’t forget.

I was the bass singer for the group. Not because I actually sang bass, but because I was chubby. Chubby children were expected to sing bass come hell or high water.

There we were. Standing outside the Back Forty Beer Company Brewery in Birmingham, Alabama. Me and a few friends. We had just finished watching an NFL football game on a large screen inside, and drinking Ovaltine.

The Uber arrived. “Are you Sean?” the Uber driver asked.

“I’ve been called worse,” I said.

We all piled into the backseat of a nice SUV. It never fails to astound me how nice Uber cars are.

My personal transportation, for example, is not nice. I drive a Ford that is 24 years old. That’s old enough to have several baby Fords of its own. My automotive interior is covered in canine fur and slobber. My seats are gnarled and look like a deranged coonhound has been chewing on the upholstery.

I have a broken radio. The A/C only works on days of the week beginning with P. And there is a hula girl mounted on my dashboard named Barbara.

But our Uber driver had a nice-looking car.

Tonight, our cab driver was a young woman. College-age. She was paralyzingly sweet. She spoke

with a Birmingham accent that was thick enough to spread on a biscuit. And when one of my friends almost ralphed on her floorboards, she was cool about it.

“Y’all, is he gonna be okay?” the driver asked.

“He’ll be fine,” one of us explained. “He’s Episcopalian.”

She nodded solemnly as though she understood exactly what this meant.

Our driver followed the route home on her GPS. And she took each extra turn gingerly, taking care not to jostle the fully loaded Episcopalian among us.

When we approached the railroad tracks near Avondale, we were blocked by a passing freight train. We parked at the railroad crossing, while my Episcopalian friend placed his head between his knees and began reciting the Lord’s Prayer.

And I talked to the driver.

“Do you like your job?” I asked.

“Oh, I love it. My…

Yesterday, I was digging through boxes in the garage. The boxes were covered in dust. I found things I didn’t even know I owned. A fondue pot, for instance. Brand new. Just what every man of the modern age needs.

I found our wedding photos, too. I had to sit down to look at those.

In one photo, I’m cutting a cake while the woman on my arm is laughing, holding her belly. Young Me is watching her.

I remember exactly what I was thinking. I was thinking the same thing I’m thinking now:

“I like making this woman laugh.”

Easier said than done. She doesn’t know how to fake laugh. It’s not in her. In fact, she doesn’t laugh unless something is worth dying over.

And if you’re lucky enough to see her get tickled—big “if”—the first thing she’ll do is hold her stomach. And IF you can get this woman to clutch her stomach, your life has been worth it.

I also found a certificate in one of the boxes. The thing was covered in plastic, with

my name written on it. My college degree.

I was a grown man when I went to college. It took me eleven years to finish. The only reason I completed was because this woman believed I could.

Sometimes I can’t tell if I’m her sidekick or if she is mine.

Either way, she is a woman who does too much. She works too hard, she loves harder. She has quirks, too. And nobody knows them like me.

For example: she cannot fall asleep without an assortment of machinery.

In her arsenal is a foam wedge (for her lower back); a heating pad (for her cold nature); a mouthguard (she grinds her teeth at night); a sound machine (apparently I snore); earplugs (apparently I am not an amatuer snorer); an eye mask (to shield her face from my professional snoring); and a…