The Jessup house in Anadarko, Oklahoma, was the last location on our shooting schedule. The house in front of us didn’t match the one in the production file. Could have been the wrong address, but Margot, our producer, was there when they shot the original episode, so the look of horror on her face confirmed two things: we were in the right place and something was very wrong.
The lawn was dead, and the yard was strewn with junked cars. An orange freight container blocked the turnaround so you couldn’t actually drive all the way through. Next to that, a galvanized trash can sprouted rebar and fluorescent light bulbs. A blue tarp had been nailed to the side of the garage and staked into the ground, making a shelter for an odd assortment of cardboard boxes. Junk was everywhere: an extension ladder leaning against the eaves, half a trampoline rising from the tall grass, a pink wading pool full of plastic bottles, a garden hose hanging inexplicably from an upstairs bedroom window. You could zoom in on any part of this house and another universe of garbage would emerge.
Our camera guy, Bill, said, “You’ve got to be kidding me,” then he grabbed the file and started flipping through pictures that showed the house we’d built for this family five years ago. It looked like all the homes we do for our show, Revive Your Dive. I grabbed the photos back from Bill and held them up for comparison. It was the same basic size and shape. The roofline was the same. A front entry stood to the right, big windows ran all the way across the ground floor, and dormers with more windows punctuated the upper story.
“I don’t want to start unloading if this isn’t the place,” Bill said.
“Hey, Margot,” somebody yelled. “Where are you going?”
I turned and saw her on foot, heading down the driveway toward the street. I got out of the van and jogged after her. When she heard me coming, she sped up without looking back. I like Margot. She and I are as different as two people can be, but we get along. If you were in a scrap, you’d want this lady on your side. She’s in charge. I’m just the driver.
“Would you quit?” I said. “You’re gonna give me a heart attack.”
She slowed, and I eventually caught up to her and turned her around. She shook my hand off and said, “I needed a moment.”
I held up the photos and pointed at the monstrosity behind us. “That house is this one?” I asked.
Margot looked away.
“Margot,” I said, lifting my voice. “We can’t shoot a follow-up segment here if that house is this one.”
“I know that, Darryl.”
“What’s Vogel going to say?” I asked.
“He’s going to detonate when he sees this place.”
“At this point there’s probably no way around it,” I said.
“Yeah, there is. We leave.”
“Running off doesn’t build confidence,” I said.
“I know,” she said.
“How come you didn’t tell us what we were getting into?”
“I didn’t know they were going to do this again,” she said.
What did she mean again? I thought about asking, but Margot looked agitated, so I dropped it. “Doesn’t matter what happened before,” I said. “We have to figure out our next steps.”
“I don’t know,” she said.
“Do we unload?”
She shook her head.
“Vogel’s supposed to be here tomorrow. If we’re gone, he’s going to split open and melt.”
“I know,” she said.
“What do I say when they start asking what’s up?”
“Tell them it’s the wrong place,” Margot said, and then she fell to thinking. I turned around and gave her some space.
Back at the house, two teenage girls and their father came out. The father didn’t look 100 percent happy about things.
“Too late,” I said to Margot. “Cat’s out of the bag.”
Margot turned and saw them, too. “We have to stop this,” she said. “Where is June?”
The crew gathered on the porch to meet the family. It looked strained and uncomfortable.
“June?” I asked.
“The mom? Did you see her?”
“No,” I said. “That guy and the daughters is it. Don’t get mad, but you need to get it together.”
“I’ve been down this road before,” she said, hustling back to the house. “We just have to get out of here before anyone talks to . . . her.”
“The market was saturated, with shows like this one everywhere, but this family was built for reality television.”
The mom came to the door, a short woman in turquoise pants and a pink sweatshirt. She set her hands on her waist like Superman and looked around. It was obvious that she did not like what she saw.
When I caught up to Margot, she said, “That’s June Jessup. She’s in charge. This mess is her thing.”
“Pack rat?” I said.
“Something like that.”
Margot opened her mouth to say more, but June spotted her and pointed and said, “I recognize you. You was here before.”
Margot tried to bolt, but I held on to her. “Be cool,” I said.
Margot hissed at me, then she straightened up, caught her attitude, and walked through everyone, smiling like Michelle Obama. “Hello, June,” she said, “Of course I remember you.” She stuck out her hand, which June would not shake. She turned to the husband and tried to greet him. He looked for his wife’s approval, which he did not get. The girls stayed back and waved, which appeared to be too much for June.
“I hope you got our letters,” Margot said.
“Probably in the stack,” June said, motioning toward the house with her thumb.
Margot looked like she was going to fire a comment right back at June, but she didn’t. “Okay, well, then it’s time for introductions. This is the crew who’s here to shoot the ‘Has It Really Been Five Years?’ segment,” Margot said, smiling. “Bill will be doing the camera work. Gavin is the sound guy. He’ll have the boom. Karin is our art director, and she also does a little hair and makeup. Farm handles the electrical. And Darryl is our driver and road manager.”
“Oh yeah,” June said. “If we knew you was coming, we’d have baked a cake.”
Margot drew in a breath and then exhaled. She didn’t take the bait.
“And let’s see if I have it right. We have June and Hoot. Jaymee is the older daughter—probably a senior, right? And Lexi. You were nine when I was here before, so that makes you fourteen.”
“Fifteen,” she said. “I’m a sophomore.”
The Jessups didn’t show a lot of interest in the introductions, but they did clearly say they weren’t ready for us. Margot said we’d come back tomorrow with Mr. Vogel. June called Vogel a pig and said she didn’t want him inside her house.
Margot said, “I’m afraid it’s not your house just yet.”
Before it turned into a brawl, she hustled us all back into the van, and we got out of there.
Everyone wanted answers, and Margot said she’d tell us what she could, but she wanted a shower and a meal first. So, we all checked in and went to our rooms to clean up. The plan was to meet back in the lobby at six and go to dinner at a Mexican place we’d seen on the way in.
“Mexican food?” Bill said, and stuck out his tongue like a five-year-old.
Margot burned him with a look and said, “There’s no Fuddruckers around here. You’ll have to get by.”
Margot said nothing about the Jessups until after we ordered. We were all aching to know what was going on, and she knew it. “You’re probably all wondering what happened this afternoon and why I didn’t say anything about it before now.”
“Correct,” Karin said.
“When we left before, they seemed happy with the house. Glad it was over, but it seemed like we’d been able to do something good. We helped them, and they helped us. Our first season was rough. Ratings were in a nosedive. The market was saturated, with shows like this one everywhere, but this family was built for reality television. Viewers drank these people up. This was all before Duck Dynasty. It happened in a time when people made their own clips and shared them on the internet. The Jessup family was what convinced the network to put our own clips of the show on online. Have any of you seen the videos?” Margot looked around. Nobody had.
“Really?” she asked.
Farm raised his hand.
“Only one of you has? Weird.”
“To be fair,” Farm said. “I saw the videos a long time ago, but I didn’t remember it was them until you said it.”
“It doesn’t matter,” Margot said. “Vogel was about to lose the show until these guys came on. They were crazy and hilarious and heartbreaking. Hoot lost his hearing in an industrial accident and was on disability. His kids learned sign language to talk to him. June was television’s first official hoarder. Who knew there was a market for that. As weird as they are, their community got behind them. Their church, too. It gave you faith in people. The shoot was perfect, too, until we started loading all of June’s junk out of the house. Apparently nobody told June that we couldn’t renovate the house unless it was empty.”
“I can see where this is going,” Karin said.
“We had all these Boy Scouts in gas masks they made themselves out of water bottles and damp rags. They marched out all these disgusting sacks of old stuff. Apparently, it was helping them get some kind of disaster merit badge. They began tossing her junk into the dumpster, June noticed, and started flipping out. ‘That’s my stuff,’ she screams. ‘My treasures. I’m gonna sell that on eBay.’ ”
“Sell it?” Farm asked.
Margot shrugged, “That’s what she said. But she came completely unglued, grabbing stuff from the boys, taking it back inside, screaming at them to stop.”
“Someone got this on tape, I hope,” Bill asked.
“We were rolling the whole time,” Margot said.
“Nice,” Bill said. “That’s how you do unscripted television.”
“Actually, it was so awful we wanted to stop, but Vogel wouldn’t let us. He said if we did, we’d never work again.”
“Being a jerk doesn’t make him wrong,” Bill said.
“June was television’s first official hoarder.”
Margot ignored him. “June was out there knocking over thirteen-year-old kids. The daughters were crying. Hoot, who can’t hear a thing, is in a chaise lounge with a newspaper over his face. Vogel starts swearing at June, then he storms off saying stuff like ‘Did any of these rednecks even read the contract?’ By the end of the day, June has chained herself to the blade of the bulldozer, screams when anyone comes near, says she won’t talk to anyone but Vogel, but Vogel has taken off. Nobody could find him for, like, an hour. When he came back, he had a set of bolt cutters.”
“Really?” Farm said.
“Bolt cutters. He sent all of us away, and then spoke with her for a half hour, maybe. When he got back, he threw the chain on the ground with the lock still on it. ‘Somebody order a shipping container and have it delivered. Don’t rent one. Buy it,’ he said. ‘We’re putting her crap into it. Also, they’re all going to Six Flags. I don’t want them around for the next part.’ Nobody knew how he pulled it off, but we were impressed. We still hated him, but, you know, props to the little guy for that.”
Farm was in the corner, looking at his phone, laughing a little and shaking his head. “I’m watching some of that episode,” he said. “You aren’t doing it justice.”
“It gets worse. We send these people off and started figuring out what to do with all of this stuff. It wasn’t all going to fit into the container. We knew that much. Sending them to Six Flags bought us a little time, so we all hit the sack. That night, at like two in the morning, the house exploded.”
“Shut up,” Gavin said.
“It was supposedly a gas leak. Everybody said it was a miracle nobody was in the house. June’s sister said it was surely the hand of our Lord, Jesus Christ.”
“Vogel did it,” Karin said.
Margot agreed. “That’s my theory.”
“He totally did it,” Gavin echoed.
“That’s what I would have done,” Bill said. “Make it look like an accident. Get some insurance money as well, right? There wasn’t any tape of the explosion was there?”
Margot nodded. “That’s how we knew it wasn’t 100 percent an accident. Vogel had a GoPro mounted to the excavator. He told the police he keeps one on site for security.”
“Does he?” Farm asked.
Margot shook her head. “He does not.”
“Son of a gun,” Bill said.
“What did June do?” Karin asked.
“It put her in the hospital. She thought it was her heart, but it was panic attacks. Vogel must have bribed somebody, because he had the crime scene cleared out and the excavators back to work a week later.”
“They’re doing a whole show about hoarders now,” Farm said. “I have a buddy doing postproduction. I just texted him. He said to stay away from hoarders. It takes all kinds of training.”
“That episode changed the whole show. Starting in season two, no more renovations. We started fresh each time. It saved us so much money, and people loved the demolition. But look, we’ve got a contract to shoot these locations. I don’t need to tell you what will happen if we don’t wrap the season.”
“I can’t shoot in that dump,” Bill said.
“Agreed,” said Farm. “If I run power into a place like that, we’ll all wish I didn’t.”
“Vogel gets here when?” Gavin asked.
“His plane lands tomorrow at two,” I said.
The waitress brought our food, warned us about the plates, and left. But nobody started eating. We all just sat there looking at each other. You could see that each one of us had a clear picture of how bad it was going to get.
“They don’t really want us around, so I’m not sure how we make it work,” Karin said.
“Understatement of the year,” Bill said, unwrapping his fork and knife.
“Maybe Vogel can do that thing he did five years ago,” Farm said.
“You mean blow the place up?” Bill said.
“I mean be the redneck whisperer,” Farm said. “Seems like he got her off that bulldozer.”
In the end, we all agreed to keep to business as usual. We’d go to the location, plan our shots, schedule the interviews, keep the production moving forward so the completion bond company wouldn’t get their pants all bunched up. This gave everyone enough of a breather to start eating. Nobody talked for about five minutes, which gave Margot time to order a second blue margarita.
From It Needs to Look Like We Tried. Used with permission of Counterpoint Press. Copyright © 2018 by Todd Robert Petersen.
For the past decade, Literary Hub has brought you the best of the book world for free—no paywall. But our future relies on you. In return for a donation, you’ll get an ad-free reading experience, exclusive editors’ picks, book giveaways, and our coveted Joan Didion Lit Hub tote bag. Most importantly, you’ll keep independent book coverage alive and thriving on the internet.