Category: The tonto Diaries

Everything related to Eric “tonto” Stephenson

Bringing Work Home

Hillbrow Night Jono WoodI’m almost home when two men hustle into the idling blue Golf in my lane and speed off. It’s dark, but there’s no mistaking the lump they leave behind.

With no space to swerve around oncoming traffic, I stomp the brakes.

The lump is crouching, hands up over a wounded head. A cricket bat lies broken next to her. Two solid hunks of wood, covered in blood.

Eric is going to kill me. I park and get out.

“Let me please help you get out of the road?”

She looks up, eyes blank with shock. I take her elbow and steer her to the curb, where she slumps and cradles her head in her arms. Emergency services rings busy. I dial again, report an assault, and sit next to her to wait.

“Can I look at your wounds?” I suddenly see that she is a he, dressed as a she. She tells me she is from Eastern Cape.

“Please don’t touch the blood. I might be HIV positive,” she whispers.

A police car approaches and I jump into the middle of the road, waving my arms to flag them down. They blaze by.

Another prostitute pokes her head around the wall and approaches slowly. She has written the license number of the Golf in lipstick on her hand. Blood, a broken cricket bat, wounds, two eyewitnesses, and… a frustrated man at home.

Sometimes, at the end of his day (he was saying, a few hours ago before I left in a huff to go see a movie), he doesn’t want to talk about saving the world. Sometimes he just wants to put his feet up and watch TV. 

Shit.

“Hi. I’m on Oxford. Something’s happened.”

“Are you okay?”

“I’m here with a prostitute. I mean, wait. There was a hate crime. She – is a he. These guys broke a cricket bat beating her. Please bring the first aid kit? She’s bleeding and the police aren’t coming. I’m afraid she’s going to die on me.”

Five minutes later Eric has gloves on as he applies alcohol swabs, Bacitracin, and bandages. He crouches down with a stranger in the dark, at the end of his day.

A few minutes later a tow truck driver sees my car, stops, and calls a private ambulance that takes the wounded woman away. The cricket bat, left at the pavement, drips red onto Oxford Street. The second prostitute takes up her position on the corner.

As he walks to his car Eric yells over his shoulder, “Be careful! See you at home.” 

I get into my car and fixate on the steering wheel. I have just encountered a human being whose blood is worth nothing. I am complicit. I am helpless.

A police van pulls up and the officers lean out to the woman remaining.

“Heyyyy, MOFFIE! You fucking Moffie! Want to suck it, Moffie? Suck it for free?”

It’s too much. I get out and charge in.

“Hey! Fuck off!” They laugh and drive away. I turn to her. “Let me take you home.”

“I can’t. I’m working.”

“How much do you make?”

“Seven or eight hundred rand in the night.”

“Where do you stay?”

“Hillbrow.”

“Get in my car. Please. I’ll give you money.”

She raises her eyebrows.

“I don’t want anything. I just want to take you home so you don’t get hurt. Okay? Please.”

“I don’t know.”

“Come on. What good does it do if you come back with a broken nose and no money?” I’m thinking, if she dies tonight it will be on my head.

She looks down. “You can’t give me the money. He will be suspicious of why I am back so early. I’m too afraid.” So, I won’t give her the money. I’ll give it to him. 

We drive a few kilometers from the leafy suburbs to the neon chaos of Africa’s worst neighborhood. I take deep breaths and clutch the wheel. She directs me to a dilapidated high rise.

People staring blankly outside on the stoop, men smoking, women hiking up their skirts for the men. Inside, tiled floor. Cockroaches crunching underfoot. She takes me upstairs and leaves me facing a large man dragging on a cigarette. He looks me up and down slowly.

I try speaking Pimp.

“Your property over there was going to get fucked up by the police tonight. The other one got hurt.”

I pull out the roll of bills. “She shouldn’t go out again.”

He takes the money and counts it. Turns his head sideways, eyelids half closed. “I have others if she’s not what you want. Or you can have two.”

“Oh no — no no. I have to go.” Backing away.

I turn at the door, gasping, run down the stairs, crunch crunch, into the bright night, fumble into the car, and accelerate through traffic lights to the man at home who holds me, unquestioning, while I sob. 

Daughter

216128_7041024612_3296_n“Stay wonderful. We can be happy. Love can go anywhere. Wherever you are, my love is with you, and it’s good love.”

Your dad wrote these words to me before he died, and I believe they are still true. I have loved you for a long time. I fell for you when you curled up in my lap after my first weekend at a new dropzone and snoozed as he gave me a lift home.

Later, when he and I moved in together and I played more of a role in your weekend visits, we spent special time with our imaginary friends — Alice the flying dolphin and of course the toenail shark, who appeared in the bath to bite children whose nails weren’t trimmed.

You were at the skydiving club when his landing went wrong and he couldn’t get up to drive you back to your mom’s house. Nine years old, and there was nothing but to hold you and your sister tight while I still could, and hope that you would come looking for me someday.

Eventually, you did. 

The people who have stepped up to help both of us are former skydivers whose lives your dad touched through his instruction and presence. It is complicated that what he loved took him away, but somehow continues to pay the love back.

Your dad enjoyed jumping out of airplanes and flying fast parachutes, but skydiving was more than a selfish indulgence for him. Teaching and interacting with jumpers were his ways of making a difference in people’s lives. He believed in love; he believed in you; and he had a strong sense of his own path and the obligations that came with it.

He’s not here to hold you, and it’s not fair. Yet, more than ever, now is the time to begin a deeper understanding of who he was, and to learn from that wisdom. I want you to know unconditional love; to believe in yourself; and to develop strength in your convictions as you work hard to create an adventurous, fulfilling life.

From our conversation earlier today, I know there are times you’d rather be “stabbed with a butter knife” than finish high school. You’re 17, and I guess we’ve all been there. What would your dad say? He’d probably tell you he understands, but he also wrote to your uncle one time, “If I’ve learned one thing, it’s that there is no action without consequence.”

You can do this, and the rewards will be worth it. You will not be alone. 

Our actions, even the smallest ones, make ripples that we can never know the end of. When you cast a stone into the ocean, it seems to disappear, and the surface of the water continues to churn. But from the moment the stone leaves your hand, the entire universe has become a different place.

Act wisely, and the world will show you its magic.

I love you, for always.

Safe Place to Sleep Tonight

Taya JeffWe leave the bar near the dropzone with hookah pipe smoke clinging to our clothes, into the darkness, the car, towards the neon signs of gas stations around the lake. He reaches over to hold my hand and I take it. I am his passenger and he has promised me a safe place to sleep tonight.

He says, “I think you’re scared of me because of how I make you feel. Either you’re worried that your feelings won’t be returned, or you’re just scared of the intensity – I’m not sure.”

I meet Jeff when I decide to attempt healing from the biggest loss I’ve ever experienced by trying out for a wingsuit world record. I’m not known in these circles since I’ve just moved back to the US from South Africa, but I can fly my slot. At the end of the weekend he takes me out for sushi and invites me to California. The mission is to organize the wingsuit bigway formation attempt, a 71-way at Lake Elsinore. It’s an exciting offer. Flying feels good but I’m grieving, and won’t get involved with anyone before a year has passed.

He says he understands. He has scheduled the wingsuit event to coincide with his late father’s birthday. His dad died when he was 29 years old, and he still wants to make him proud. His mom passed away, too. We will do a 71-way because he was born in 1971. He doesn’t want anyone to know that’s why he picked the number. I am sworn to secrecy. I trust him because he seems to understand loss and remembrance, so we agree to travel and work together.

Jeff turns left down a side road and I feel my stomach lurch. I recognize something about the neighborhood. Moonlight on the lake. The road dead-ends and the porch of the house still looks exactly as it did five years ago, when my friend Wyat lived there. He had cut away and was jumping full time. We had partied and talked about our dreams.

Wyat is dead now, crashed his motorcycle last year. A man who used to make a living jumping out of airplanes and flying tiny little parachutes down the sides of mountains. The irony of the ground getting him from only a few feet up is never lost on me.

We get out of the car at my dead friend’s house, now occupied by one of Jeff’s friends who is still very much alive and has invited us to stay.

I shouldn’t be here.

I see ghosts drinking Jack Daniels and kicking the rope swing out around the corner of the big porch. They turn to look at me, the dead skydivers. People I’ve held hands with in freefall. Wyat is there, and Elle. And with them is Eric, the love of my life, smiling at me and swilling his drink with a sideways look that says, “You know I hate this stuff but I’m trying to be social.”

“…I give people ladders,” Jeff is saying. “I let them think they’re better than me so they will achieve their dreams. Look at what I’ve done in this sport: for Justin, for Tony – for you.”

“Take me to a hotel.” I’m choking on the fear I don’t want to show.

“What?”

“Take me to a goddamn hotel.”

Dust to Dust

1934099_19769534612_6418_nShe tells me she’s having a recurring dream about giving birth. She physically feels the contractions and the pain, pushing and breathing and yelling until she hears his first cries.

When she wakes, the sobs start low and growly. The dream vision of the birth is like the Big Bang, an explosion in her chest with the compressed mass of the human condition, pushing out and out. She gave birth, and she couldn’t protect him. Her son is dead.

Eight months later, Eric’s mother and I drive out to the skydiving club.

She rummages in her bag and gives me a slightly worn picture of him as a young boy to carry with me in my wingsuit pocket. At 19 years old in a collared button down shirt, he’s still scrawny, a gleam in his eye. He was 44 when he died, with the same smile.

She puts her hands on my shoulders and her forehead against mine (I am thinking: just like he used to do). She says, “He was my son. He came from my womb. His life started with me, and it ends with you.”

I walk to the plane with the handmade red pouch strapped to my left wrist. At boarding point, I sit with my head down. This is a solo mission. I look up once, opening my eyes to a view of our friend Raymond’s pants leg as he stands near me protectively. The embroidery reads, “Martin’s Funerals! 011-672-8104”. New sponsor. I start to crack, giggling hysterically.

On board, I sit near the pilot, close my eyes, breathe, and focus. I feel Eric’s presence. He is smiling, with a student. He is kissing me in the door.

Tears mark minutes until we get to altitude. I grab my soul and throw it over the threshold, then chase it out. The plane dives away and I begin to glide. The air feels dense. Everything is slow. He is off my left wingtip, he is underneath me, he is the air and the sky and the planet below.

I open my parachute and then the little pouch, feeling the rough ash with chunks of bone between my fingers. This magical dust. So many late night conversations, our deep trust, the way we rolled over together while sleeping, all condensed in the palm of my hand.

Pieces of him stream out to my left side, riding the relative wind.

I land where his blood marked the grass. Edith holds me and moans, “my baby, my baby”. I can’t tell if she is talking to me.

The sun is bright, the earth red, the breeze soft, the sky brilliant blue, the birds alive, the grass still growing. Everything in vivid color, heavy and bright, bleeding with his memory. 

I eat a banana, give our long-time packer a hug as he hands me my neatly closed container with the suit unzipped and ready to wear, and do what will come to define me. I give Edith a kiss on the cheek and get ready for the next jump.

Blue Skies

Taya and tonto“Blue Skies. This sport glows brightly, and burns incomparably beautiful images into our memories. That brightness comes at a very high cost. It’s the lives of our friends, the blood and the bones of our sky family. That’s the dark side, the Black Death. There is no one without the other.” -Eric “tonto” Stephenson

Blue Skies

The air inside the small plane is hot, but not for long. Ten bodies, most of them much bigger and hairier than mine, are crammed in with their gear. On the tiny bench, my hips are squeezed on either side and the guy on the floor is leaning on my legs. I put my head on Eric’s shoulder, feeling the rough cordura of his rig on my face and breathing the familiar smell of his wingsuit: nylon washed in atmosphere. He takes my hand. The Porter climbs at 800 feet per minute and I’m woken up by the two-minute call. We’re at 10,000 feet and it’s almost time to get out.

I look at Eric and we breathe together, link fingers, then clasp and let go. This is our ritual. The door opens at 11,000 feet and a rush of cool air floods into the steamy can of jumpers. Outside, canyons of cloud make the sky look like a soft, intricate mountain range. I look at him, red goggles, no helmet on his number-two shaved hair, grinning. He has the most adorable teeth I’ve ever seen.

He squeezes my hand again and leans in – sharing consciousness for that moment before exit. His lips, his cool tongue sliding into my mouth, and the adrenaline charges into my bloodstream. We step over the edge, leaving the plane behind.

Freedom. The whole world looks soft from this far up. We’re over the Carletonville mine dumps. From the air, they look like zen gardens, their arsenic-laced sand combed methodically. Even the one shaped like a coffin has somewhat rounded edges from altitude. The township shacks, the dumps, the roads, the railroad tracks, the grassy fields with cows, are draped today in fluffy white distractions.

Wings open, catching air, I glide for the edge of the nearest white canyon with the sun on my face. We dip our wings into the cloud, and it tickles my right hand with cold moisture. Eric flies up alongside me: “Hey!” I hear his voice on the rush of the relative wind. He’s laughing, face full of joy: “I LOVE YOU!”

The kisses on the ground are better than the ones in the plane. They affirm that we have chosen to fly and survived, yet again. When he leans in to kiss me on that hard ground, I am grateful for the red earth under my feet: for his closeness, acceptance, shared need to fly.  At sunset we crack open a cold beer, eat a home-cooked meal, and disappear to one of the wooden huts nearby. When I think of love, I see his smile in the door and I see him blowing kisses at me as he flies off my wingtip, and I see his red shorts hanging off a bare white bulb as we make love at the end of a day like this.