15 | brennan burnside

free fall


James “Drastik” Ellroy was wearing the same gold chains that he’d worn to the 2003 MTV Movie Awards and sitting in the soft black chair that faced the maroon wall of gold records lined up in chronological order from the first one in 1999 to the last one in 2007. His eyes studied each of the frames running the length of the room, looking for a slight differentiation in the space between each frame. Each space was mathematically identical and it made him sad. A perfect closed system. Perhaps, he thought, his career had truly had a cap. Perhaps it had all been part of some larger organism, evolving toward some larger end that couldn’t give a shit about ideas that he had for his own part in its existence.

His lawyer was explaining what bankruptcy meant and why it was, at this stage, essential to declare it for his financial safety. James heard his name and felt as if he’d just woken up. He asked the lawyer to repeat what he’d just said. The lawyer said, “Do you understand what this means?” and it sounded like a distant echo. James asked about the Miami condo and jet and the penthouse in Manhattan that he was sitting in at that moment and the lawyer shook his head, “James, that’s exactly what I was explaining to you. You might lose some of your property, but if you declare bankruptcy then all of your properties won’t be appropriated as collateral to pay your debt”, but James shook his head.

“No, man. I can’t do it. Bankruptcy…like…like, it sounds like failure.” And his lawyer nodded.

“In a way it is, James. Things are falling apart and this is how we’re dealing with it” James dropped his head into his hands and wanted to go to sleep. Deep down, he felt that this was not correct.  These words being tossed around by his lawyer had meaning for some other people – but not for him. With his eyes closed, he felt that he only had to continue as he had always done. To increase his momentum, not decrease. Eventually things would catch up, loose ends would curl back around him. Things would be made right and he’d laugh about all this bullshit later.

After all, what if lawyer was wrong? Yes, he’d cost a lot of money, but when had that made any difference?


Reggie Thurgood was not just an agent, but a best friend and part-time drug dealer who had been administering doses of cocaine, Xanax, Zoloft, ketamine (and whatever else) to Drastik when he deemed it necessary, which (so far) was two times a week (even though James had asked for more). Since all properties had been seized (despite his lawyer’s assurance that the opposite would happen), he was also a roommate.

James was crashing on the couch in the rec room behind Reggie’s house. There was no bed, but Reggie had bought an inflatable mattress and covered it with several blankets that he’d picked up on a “business” trip to the Yucatan Peninsula. It was there, tangled in Mayan geometry and bright reds and saffron yellows that Reggie found James unconscious with a needle still sticking out of his arm. After quickly cleaning up the space to absolve himself of any guilt, he called the ambulance and confessed that he’d found James unconscious with the needle in his arm and when they asked him where he’d gotten the needle Reggie said the same thing that he would tell the police and press from that moment forward, “I don’t know where he gets these things from. You know how he is. He was on the streets long before he got famous so, you know, he knows how to get it. Guys like him are born knowing how.”


Lacey Pendergrass began his career opening for Carrot Top, performing an outlandish body distortion act the culmination of which was inserting a straw into his own anus with his mouth wherein he would make a sound somewhere between an arm pit fart and a kazoo. But after landing Chris Pontius’ agent (when the former Jackass star saw the “ass kazoo” act in a club in LA) a show was developed for him on MTV3 wherein he took B-level stars out to perform high-risk stunts. So, it was Pendergrass who approached Drastik two days after the hip hop star had emerged from rehab and Drastik, unaware of Pendergrass’ reputation for publically humiliating celebrities fallen from grace (as rehab had disallowed any media contact), agreed to do a show after Pendergrass dropped a five-figure contract on him. And, seeing as Drastik had absolutely no money, he took it and bought himself a small apartment in a somewhat ratty (yet authentic) part of San Francisco (one of the few left).


The strangest thing was the caul that formed over the eyes, not a milky film, but more like a windshield coated in rain that seemed to occur (at random) over his mind and this shield would, despite his best attempts, prevent James from fully understanding information. This was why he famously stated that he didn’t write down his rap lyrics but relied exclusively on freestyling. This was why he didn’t drive and why he always wrote down any errand that he was leaving his apartment to complete in painstaking detail on yellow ruled-paper that he carried always in his right hip pocket. He had done the same as he prepared for the skydiving trip with Pendergrass (the camera crew taking special interest in it as well as, conspicuously, Pendergrass) and he re-wrote it at the end of everyday so that all details for what he should do were written on the piece of paper.

(As he got older, he’d developed file folders by week, month and year so that if he ever needed a piece of information he could review the time and place from where it had first arisen. And as heavy drug use/detox would periodically destroy all ability to function normally, the lists increasingly became a crutch and eventually an obsession.)

When the day of the flight came James sat in a corner away from the others, reviewing his notes meticulously. And when Pendergrass called him over he stuffed it in his pocket; however, he didn’t see Pendergrass’ companion, Chris Pontius, secretly (while winking at the camera) remove the list and place it in his own.

When they jumped from the airplane, Pendergrass and Pontius pulled a frightened James out of the plane with his parachute just barely secured. His arms contracted, shaking uncontrollably as if he’d suddenly developed cerebral palsy. (Later footage revealed the evil substance abuse had done to his once well-sculpted body.) As they fell, Pontius pulled the folded yellow paper from his pocket and showed it to Pendergrass who laughed. James stared at Pontius in disbelief. He suddenly couldn’t breathe and his eyes were heavy. Pendergrass and Pontius were to his right, only feet away, but he could barely see them. They were shadows behind a milky film. His hands patted his body frantically. He quickly rifled through his pockets, looking for the paper. Later, the footage would show him screaming at both Pontius and Pendergrass and the air. He screamed a lot at the air.

It was while trying to reach into a breast pocket on his shirt (thinking he’d mistakenly put the note there), inside the gaudy jumpsuit that Pendergrass had requested they wear, that he accidentally unbuckled his parachute. At that moment, a strange silence occurred. Pendergrass, Pontius and the camera man floating in the mid-air. Their faces were blanched, stunned. Everyone knew that they would soon have to pull their parachutes. That that was the only thing they could do. Yet, it felt like that demand was somehow not real. After all, it was all being filmed. It would be on MTV3. Shouldn’t there be a director to say “Cut”?

Pendergrass lost his characteristic toothy grin and Pontius was gibbering to the cameraman, who was already reaching for his parachute. The camera didn’t pick up what Pontius was saying, but the camera man insisted he was saying “Do something. Do something. Why don’t you fucking do something?!” These were the fascinating yet uneasy moments when people were brought face-to-face with unadulterated humanity, with the raw nature of fear, with the bare, unadorned face of fate. Pontius and Pendergrass screamed at each other now. A bubble, however tenuous, had formed around the moment.

If you watch the footage, then you see that just before the parachutes are pulled, everyone is silent. They say nothing. They don’t move. They float in midair as if in deep meditation.

Despite this focus, none of them were paying attention when Ellroy made his body into an arrow and shot toward the ground like a rocket. In fact, they were utterly horrified when they saw it on the camera footage days later.


One of the earliest skydivers was Miles Davis. Not the musician but an eccentric bank manager from Minnesota, who, in 1920, had completed 25 skydives and, deciding that he wanted an extra thrill, asked for a pillow 100 feet deep. A space twice that depth had been dug out of the ground. In order to compensate for drift, the pillow was also 100 feet on all sides. It was stuffed with down feathers and placed where Davis conjectured he would land after jumping parachute-less from a plane 10,000 feet above the earth.

When Davis jumped, his friend Jacob Lewin accompanied him wearing a parachute. As the duo free-fell, Lewin said later, Davis suddenly complained of dizziness and of not being able to see the ground and as Lewin attempted to swim toward him, Davis pushed him away and pointed his body earth-ward head-first. He quickly moved away from Lewin. Lewin pursued him up to the point where he had to pull his parachute. Upon landing, he ran to the site of the pillow, where ground observers said that Davis’ body made no sound but only disappeared into the fabric, which for months was said to pull taut from a depression at the center. It only appeared to cease in January when snow had fallen so deeply that the depression could not be seen, the entire pillow had been covered in snow and Lewin assumed Davis dead.

That spring when Lewin drove to the site to pay his respects, although firefighters who stood from an engine ladder’s height denied it, he swore that he still heard the fabric tightening as if something was pushing against the pillow, pulling the center of it deeper and deeper into the earth.


brennan burnside works as an urban gardener and reading tutor and lives near Philadelphia. He has most recently been featured in Loud Zoo, Word Riot, HyperText and Maudlin House. His chapbook, Room Studies, is available from Dink Press. He posts photography of bathroom architecture and various literary ephemera on his blog, burnsideonburnside.tumblr.com.