You are up on your tin sheet roof, bracing against the breeze and clutching on to the TV antenna. The wiry candelabra is flimsier than you thought it would be—it reminds you of the plastic model planes you would make as a kid, glued to little stands on the desk in your room. Backlit by the overcast skies, the antennae look like steel-grey bomber planes, or frozen seabirds.
You are on your roof because last night was the first episode of Beauty and the Geek. It’s a bad reality show about Beauties and Geeks learning to be, respectively, Geekier and Beautier. The previous tenants of your house left an old coax cable behind when they moved out, so last night you connected the television to the free-to-air channels for the first time. You don’t know anyone else who has actually done this, you realise. Mostly, your friends watch TV on their laptops. Television antennae are relics of a time before you existed.
You have nothing else to do these days, so you and your housemates all decided to watch Beauty and the Geek, to kill the hours. When the Beauties and Geeks win a challenge, they get to go on a date. Last night, the privilege was won by a particularly beautiful Beauty and geeky Geek, for having successfully impersonated seal trainers. ‘Congratulations!’ the host said. ‘You get to go on a date to… 32 N________ Road!’ All the contestants cheered.
That can’t be right, you thought. That is your home address. You looked over to your housemates, but they did not seem as phased by this as you might have expected. I must have misheard, you thought, but the show then cut immediately to handheld-camera footage of the Beauty and Geek standing at your front door. ‘I’m so excited to get more confidence and come out of my shell,’ the Geek was saying. The Beauty said, ‘I just want him to come out of his shell more, and maybe learn a bit more confidence!’
The pair walked straight into your house, into the living room, where you were sitting on the couch with your two roommates, watching Beauty and the Geek. You could see yourself, on the TV, exactly as you were then. You looked around but there was definitely no camera crew in your house. ‘What’s going on?’ you asked your housemates, but they were not really paying much attention. ‘Dunno, they’re on a date now,’ they said, looking back at their phones.
The Beauty and Geek sat down on the couch next to you, one on each side. The camera cut to a close up of their conversation. The Geek said, ‘I never used to be very confident.’ The Beauty said, ‘I’m so happy you’re coming out of your shell!’ On the television you watched yourself, wedged between them on the couch, watching yourself.
Eventually they left. Later that night, you found a link to stream the episode on the internet. When you watched it again, the Beauty and the Geek went instead to that arcade/bar you walk by sometimes. The Geek told the Beauty that he loved her, and she said, ‘that’s nice’.
And that is why you find yourself on the roof. You clamber up the side of your house with the rusty ladder you keep in the laundry room. The thin tin sheets of the ceiling warp slightly as you step on them, reverberating back into place with the deep thunder of rigid membranes. You bring your garden clippers up with you too. There must have been something wrong with your antenna.
From the top of your roof, you can look over the sea of houses squeezed into this valley of the inner city. This area used to be a swamp where criminals would hide, you read online.
Regardless—all around you the terrace houses are wedged into another, it seems, with significant pressure. They jostle each other like plates on fault lines, like jelly Tetris blocks ready to burst.
And yet, you notice, all of these houses have wiry antennae on top. You can see them now—the rusting aerials like urban ghosts, so ubiquitous and little-used that the eye just filters them out of vision. Irrelevant information. You can’t remember the last time you actually saw them. They form a kind of aluminium canopy, a Jacob’s ladder climbing over the soft blue of reflected sky on tin rooves.
You take your wire clippers and snip one of the antennae rods off, just to see what happens. As a joke, you put the snipped metal bar in a recycled glass pickle jar, half filled with water, and put it next to the vines you clip from the park and replant in your bedroom. On your windowsill the plants press their brown roots firmly against the sides of the jar, learning to sprout, or maybe just holding on.
A few days later, though, the rod in the glass jar has grown roots. Little metal spikes, spokes maybe. An aluminium growth.
You watch the jar more carefully. After a week, the rod has sprouted a whole new baby TV antenna. Before episode two of Beauty and the Geek, you take the little antenna out of its jar and duct tape it back to the antenna on your roof, making sure to press the bare metal ends firmly together.
Downstairs, you settle into the living room with your housemates and turn the TV to the correct channel. Beauty and the Greek comes on, which doesn’t seem right to you. Your housemates don’t notice anything out of the ordinary. In this episode, twelve Beauties and twelve Greeks are paired up. The Greeks are also quite beautiful. There is not much drama now between the two demographics, which is kind of nice.
Again, one pair wins a date to come to your house, so they can become more confident and/or out-of-their-shell. In your living room, you wave your arms through where the Beauties and Greeks should be standing, but you do not feel anything, except maybe, that kind of minty softness you get after brushing your teeth. You can’t decide if the feeling is just in your head.
Afterwards, you go to the roof and take many clippings from the antenna. You fill every container you can find in your house with water to grow new roots. Your housemates don’t notice, for the most part—their eyes are still filtering out the antennae. The living room of your terrace house becomes like a jungle nursery, a greenhouse of aluminium plants.
Every week you attach more antennae to the roof of your house. The construction sprawls out like a giant Eucalpyt, like a river delta, like the tubes of your lungs strung out and upside down. As you amass a growing collection of differently-sized receivers, you keep connecting to new radio wavelengths on the free-to-air, connecting to new variations of shows.
On the third week, you watch Beauty and the Meek, in which first-century-A.D. Beauties are paired with impoverished Israelites. Jesus is the host, and he shows a lot of cleavage, as is tradition.
On the fourth week, the show is called Beauty and the Beast, which, you realise, is no longer actually a play on words. Twelve beautiful French peasants are paired with human/beast chimeras and must befriend talking clocks to escape/fall in love.
Every week, one pair wins a date and comes to your house to learn about confidence and out-of-shellness. The invisible camera crew knocks many of your growing-jars over, shattering them on the floor as they film the date-winners. Your housemates do not really notice, or maybe they just don’t mind. With one eye on the TV, you find that you are able to place yourself exactly inside the contestants, moving as they do with just a small bit of lag. You spend some time with the Geek, and some with the Beauty. Soft and minty. They say ‘I love you’ to each other but you know the show has pressured them to say it. ‘I love you’, you say with them one second too slow, ‘I’ve really come out of my shell.’
By the fifth week, your TV antenna is so monstrous that it sprawls away from your house onto your neighbours’, connecting to their antennae like the crawling of a great vine in an ancient European city. You climb to the top of the metal gumtree with a bag of new antennae slung over your shoulder, until you are many metres above your house, attaching the smaller growths wherever there is space.
From here, you can see across the whole inner-city valley. Aluminium sprawls out away from you in every direction, grey bomber planes balancing on thin wires. Their seagull wingtips stretch into the wispy sky, forming quiet wakes where they drag against the edges of the clouds.
When you were young, kids would dangle upside down from the monkey bars in the school yard. For some reason this always scared you, even though you were not particularly afraid of heights. Maybe you were just scared of your lower-body strength. Now, it seems like a challenge. You can feel it in the radio buzzing of your metal tower, like a secret episode that only you can see. ‘How many dates will it take for you to listen?’ it sings to you. ‘How many weeks? How many years?’
You grab onto a horizontal beam and lower your body down so you are hanging. The buzzing filters like sifted sand through the cracks in your palms. You swing forward and grab onto the next bar, and the next, and on. The monkey bars take you away from your house, up through the valley and into the cold windy spaces that tessellate themselves below the thin clouds. You taste a subtle freshness, a mintiness, a memory of toothpaste.
When you have monkey-barred far enough, you swing your legs up and lock your knees around a sturdy-looking antenna, slowly allowing yourself to fall backwards until you’re hanging upside down. Somewhere distant below, your housemates have just started the next episode of Beauty and the Geek. ‘I feel way more confident!’ someone says, and the words float softly across the terrace-house valley. ‘I’ve really come out of my shell!’
For miles off into the distance, invisible TV antennae are softly swaying in the breeze. You can see them all, their wiry fingers scraping at the cloud layer, peeling away thin strings of vapour. It is like they are probing a balloon, softly squeezing the rubbery membrane, asking after the pressure. When the clouds clear, you are sure, the aluminium rods will search through the firmament too. You are not sure what they are hoping to find.
Zac Picker grew up in Kansas and currently resides in Bulanaming/Marrickville. During the day he is a physics PhD student, studying black holes and dark matter. By night Zac doubles as a writer of weird fiction, with stories published in magazines and journals such as Island, Soft Stir, Aniko Press, Curiouser, and Going Down Swinging, winning the Swinburne Microfiction Prize in 2020, as well as both the Honi Soit Writing Competition and the USU Creative Awards in 2021. www.zacpicker.com, insta @zac_picker
tenderhooks is an art-doer living in sydney. their body was in perth for a fair while before that. working mostly with pigmented black lines and digital ink, their art has appeared on beer taps, tote bags, instagram & 1 x ute. they make alloys of the disturbing & tender & absurd to continue to unfold the inner landscapes & melancholy ecstasies of beyond-word spaces.