Mars is the Pick-Me-Up Planet

Richard Peabody 


I’m between COVID shots. Retired. Nothing to do. The libraries aren’t taking book donations. So, I spend my days cruising from one Little Free Library to another. Take a book, leave a book.

I like how they vary in design. Here a caboose, there a barn. How some are linked to the Free Library System with tiny plaques and serial numbers, while others are renegade Free Libraries and not included on any neighborhood maps.

Which is fine by me.

I keep to a regular circuit. I prefer obscure books. Most of what I read isn’t in current library catalogs or available on Kindle. I have all these boxes of giveaway books just sitting underfoot.

I even wondered about having a safe distance book sale.  But I’m not that comfortable around people yet.

Then there’s all of the books my wife left behind. Mostly mysteries and books about diseases.

Not my thing.

It’s funny, I never noticed these little book trees before. Blissfully unaware. Like I was about babies in strollers before we had kids. Didn’t pertain to my reality. Until it did. Strictly on a need-to-know basis.

I used to drive aimlessly trying to make babies and toddlers fall asleep. Now I drive aimlessly to find Free Little Libraries.

Through trial and error, I’ve found some folks who leave treasures.  I steer clear of the libraries near schools or playgrounds because they pretty much house YA or children’s books.

I follow my gut more than I follow the map. I drive around with two boxes of books and I travel neighborhood by neighborhood. Yesterday, I hit a bunch around Sibley Hospital, then the kayaker hippie neighborhood across the Maryland line, out to Glen Echo, and on toward Potomac.

Today I’m trusting my intuition. Driving around and enjoying the Spring and turning when I have a hunch. I’ll bet there’s one down by the bike path. Azaleas are blooming. Dogwoods. The grass and trees are that shiny new greeny green. But nothing. Struck out. I know this road loops around and heads up to a dead end. And I don’t know how I know this, but at the top of the hill where a For Sale sign on a one-story brick home sends a distress signal

because the house next door has been McMansioned and towers 3 stories above it and extends to the edges of the lot, I see a baby blue library box with double glass doors and a flower antenna. Two young mask-less moms are talking while their kids kick a soccer ball around the asphalt.

I stop so I can don my double mask layers. Still being as careful as I can be. They’re looking at me. I roll down the window.

“Hi there.”

They wave.

I point to the only remaining space on the circle in front of the Little Library.

“Can we help you?”

“I’m going to park there,” I say and point at the library.

“Do you know Catherine?” the other woman says. The kids have picked up their soccer ball and run over to their mothers.

“No, I’m only visiting the library.”

“Well, she’s picky about people parking in this space. Pull back down the hill. I think there’s an empty spot.

I wave and do what she says. And there is one. I grab a Rex Stout paperback and march back up the hill toward the women and their kids. Up close the McMansion is even more hideously ugly than I’d imagined. Wasted space and difficult to heat with all those church ceilings.

“Does she know you’re coming?” the first woman says.

“What?” I realize I’m winded.

“Is Catherine expecting you?”

“No, I don’t know her. I’m just visiting her Free Library.”

They go all wary. And I guess it must be weird. Only folks in the neighborhood trade books here.

I ignore them, while their kids run inside the neighboring house, and pull open the double library doors. Interesting selection. I have to slide my specs atop my head to squint and read the titles.  Shel Silverstein, Bruce Catton, the Lunch Lady, Donald Westlake, Lee Smith, Anne Tyler, and here ya go, a Richard Condon novel I’ve never seen before.

I love the rush. I get something new to replace something that’s just gathering dust. A return to a goods and services way of transacting.

“You really were just stopping for a book?”

“Yep. Have a nice day.”

By the time I glance in the rearview the dead end is empty.


I’m thinking about shaving my beard after the reception at the Little Library yesterday. I mean it’s true I’ve been wearing the same clothes three days straight. Let my hair grow over my ears. My beard is now an unholy tangled mess. I haven’t really had any reason to do anything. I figured everybody’s wearing masks so they can’t smell me if Ido stink. Just another change living on Pandemic time.

Maybe that’s delusional?

The kids weren’t wearing masks but they kept staring.

I indulge in a long shower. Hot as I can stand. Then slide down to the blue tiled shower floor, with my legs surrounding the drain, and trim the knife-like toenails that have ripped holes in my socks. I do wash everything. Even remembering the nape of my neck.

After lunch, a couple hardboiled eggs and some iced coffee, I attack the beard with scissors before taking the electric shaver to it. The razor has to be brushed out several times. I don’t look like Santa yet but I’m getting there. Salt and Pepper de jour.

I chuckle realizing that sounds like a Dylan tune.

I use disposable razors on what remains. Takes three to scrape my face smooth. I still need a haircut but at least I’m a more respectable Papa Hemingway-looking old guy and less Pandemic Demento.


Hitting the Little Libraries in nearby Vienna today. Looks like one side of the main drag is completely dug up. The Wolf Trap Motel is fenced in and apparently about to get scraped. I turn down side streets. Swap an Agatha Christie for a Douglass Wallop I’ve never seen before. What has Four Wheels and Flies? About a dog.  Swap an Ellery Queen for a book about Tricksters.  Slim pickings today.

I like to return to a library a month later. No point in going more often. Even then, I frequently find the book I swapped still in residence. Kind of heartbreaking. Too often the selection of books looks exactly the same as it was last month. Either way makes you feel bad. I will swap a book anyway.  Just to freshen things up. And then drive the swap book to another library in a different neighborhood.


Cloudy and rainy all day. Just sat reading and sipping coffee.


Falls Church today. I try some different streets and find a three-level Library filled with SciFi.  Old pulp paperbacks. Thrillers. Maybe this is where the folks who owned Hole in the Wall Books on Route 7 live? I don’t recognize the guy in the Todd Rundgren Utopia Tour tee mowing the lawn. But honestly, I don’t recognize anybody when they’re masked and have gone to seed.

RA Lafferty. Ballard. Sheckley, Simak, and Sturgeon. Some Conan books. Yet I pass them by for Tarzan and the Ant Men by Edgar Rice Burroughs, one of the first authors I ever read. I liked Tarzan though only the Greystoke film ever captured the written words.

I adored the Martian series. Barsoom, Dejah Thoris, and John Carter. I waited my entire life for a movie adaptation and Disney blew it. I loved the movie but the advertising campaign was an unmitigated disaster. They should have kept the actual title A Princess of Mars.

Plus, my kids’ friends ridiculed them for liking it. Told them it ripped off Star Wars. I told my kids it was the other way around.  Star Wars ripped off the Martian series. Life’s not fair.

No sequels will ever be made.

I’m daydreaming when I realize a dog is barking, a huge German shepherd bounding past the lawnmower and heading my way. The Utopia guy abandons the mower and gives chase but he’s not nearly fast enough.

He’s yelling, “Sammy. Stop. Dammit Sammy, come here.”

Sammy jumps and I shove the paperback in his jaws. He bites down hard, shakes his head looking pretty confused, and that second allows me to grab his collar. He immediately starts pulling away and barking and shaking his head but I’m not letting go and when Sammy freezes we stare at each other until lawnmower man arrives and takes over the collar hold.


Sipping Iced coffee from a black-on-black Contigo on the deck steps. The red maples in the yard are losing their helicopter seedlings. The air is alive with the tiny whirly birds. The sound they make as they doink the roof and then slide down the shingles to the gutter or the ground is so tantalizing.

I shift to my right and a red fox moves across the yard and effortlessly over the fence.

And I think of my wife. How she always wanted a dog. Not a handbag dog. A big one she could jog with.

Next, I’m doing a memory dump of all of the appliances we replaced in our time together.

3 refrigerators
3 washing machines
2 dryers
4 dishwashing machines
3 garbage grinders
1 stand-alone freezer
3 toasters
2 stoves
4 blenders
2 kettles
2 furnaces
2 lawnmowers

I’m stumped. Watching the squirrels run around the fence tops now that the fox is no longer in the area and chewing on crushed ice in my drink. And then I think–

2 vans
2 Honda Civics
1 Toyota Camry
1 Mazda

We shared all that.


One thing I’ve learned from driving down every cul-de-sac, every dead end, is that rich people tend to buy at the ends of such streets. When a neighborhood gets McMansioned it seems to begin at the back of the street and then work its way back to the cross street. Why? My guess is they don’t want us to see their gaudy residences. Don’t want us snooping around. Casing the joint. The looks I sometimes get. Damn.

I rarely find Free Libraries on those streets. Not like they read books.

Closer to the high school I found a bike path with a Free Library done up like a train engine. The front is Plexiglas and the books are jammed in. Nobody has stopped here in a long time.

One spine sort of winks at me. I lift the Plexiglas door, one of the sort you have to hold-up or balance with the top of your head, pulled out the book, turned it over, and noticed my hand was crawling with ants. Looked at the book. Looked at the space I’d pulled it from, and there is a writhing ant colony. The book is crawling with ants–they’re racing up my arms. I shove the book back in place, let the door slam, and sweep the tiny army off my hands, wrists, arms, elbows.

Fuck that nonsense.

Later, next to a rental brick Colonial full of jocks, the Free Library was on a post that leaned precipitously forward. When I opened the glass front, the books slid out and hit me in the chest. If you were quick enough you might catch one or two in your arms. These knuckleheads must get their kicks watching people juggle the books.  Drop one. Close the door. Pick it up. Try to slip it back inside, drop two more. I hate these guys. Think about puncturing one of the tires on their football party bus.



Today yields Planet Dog. An everything guide to man’s best friend. The only book I kept for myself. Some days you discover that the only book you can trade for is a book you already have.

So, you walk back to the car, and add it to the box of books you’ll trade back in another neighborhood. I seem to be too into the one-for-one swap scenario to just leave my book and go without taking one in return.  Very Old Testament, I guess.

But this dog book is kind of fun. I suppose a few years ago it would have been one of the “Dogs for Dummies” guidebooks. Same idea.



Back at the Sci-Fi writer’s house and Sammy is barking and carrying on at the front door.

The maskless guy walks over to have a look see and puts the dog on a leash and walks down the sidewalk. He’s wearing a black 9:30 tee today.

“Back again?”

“It’s an addiction.”

He snorts a laugh. “I guess it is.”

The dog isn’t barking. As though being on the leash has calmed his anxiety somewhat.

“Hey, want a beer?”

“Nah, just had my second vac today.”

“Yeah. Which flavor?


“Whew. Moderna hits harder.”

“So, I’ll wait for two more weeks before I go maskless.”

“Great. Come back and we’ll sit on the deck.” He claps me on the shoulder.


“Damn. Sorry man.”   He steps out into the road. Waves a hand. “Off to walk the dog.”

“See ya.”

My take this visit is A Martian Odyssey. I remember that was a pretty good yarn.


I haven’t felt this excited about NASA since the Mercury 7.

NASA was like Disney in how they scrubbed everything squeaky clean before feeding the hungry news machine.  Most official histories don’t mention the wild woman who slept with six of the original seven astronauts. Only one turned her down. Guess which one.

The space agency paid her a bundle to keep her mouth shut. And the only way I know any of this is because a buddy of mine was a reporter for Life magazine back when that meant something. He was nose to the ground 24/7 news hound but they killed his story.

The Space Race.  Now we’re finally where I’ve always wanted to be. Mars. The red planet.

And the Mars Rovers have been my lifeline. More than I ever hoped they would be. I’m no scientist but that they’re really walking on the surface of another planet and beaming back incredible photos. It’s helped a lot during 2020. The year we all learned what it’s like to be shut-ins.  I love Perseverance. I love Integrity. And today’s the day. The little helicopter will fly roundabout Mars.

Not that I can watch it though. They say they’ll have video in a few weeks.



Doing another circuit. Sky is threatening rain. Nice surprises today.   A Modesty Blaise hardback.  A pair of Delacorta paperbacks—Diva and Vida.  A book of WWI poetry. A Haiku anthology.

Now it’s literally raining on my parade. I read some Haiku. I dip into the WWI poets.  Isaac Rosenberg is new to me.  No sign of letting up. So, I start the car. Notice at the top of the steps the front door is open and a woman is staring at me. She has a phone to her ear. I wave and pull away.

When I turn the corner there’s a young kid twirling a bright yellow umbrella by a front yard lemonade stand.  I brake. She looks pleased with herself despite the rain. I feel bad for her.

I undo my seat belt. Reach for some change. Nada. I feel a bill. It’s a tenner. Figure she deserves it. Park. She notices me.

“You want some lemonade?”

“But of course.”

The rain shifts from drizzle to steady just as it has been switching back and forth all day.

She runs up the grassy hill. I fear she will fall but she’s laughing and pours me a lemonade

Out of a large thermos. Holding the umbrella clamped between her neck and chin.

“Here, let me help.” I slide the wet handle away and shield her and the thermos.

“It’s pink. I hope that’s okay?” She hands me the plastic cup.

“I like Lemonade no matter what color it is,” I say and take a sip. Not bad. It’s not a mix.

“My brother and his friends think it’s sissy, being pink and all.”

“Boys are pretty silly,” I add.

She giggles. Shows buck teeth.

“What do I owe you?”

75 cents.

“Here ya go,” and I hand her the tenner.

Her eyes widen.

“I’ll have to run get change from my mom.”

“No, don’t bother.”

She tries to hand the ten back.

I wave it off and finish the drink.  “Keep it. You earned it.” And I point at the sky.


“All yours.”  I set the empty cup down, wave, and head back to my car.

She pauses, waves, and races back to her house.

Good deed accomplished.

By the time I drive a block the rain has stopped, just as suddenly as it began.

Born in Washington, DC., raised in Bethesda, MD., and now living in Arlington, VA., poet, writer, editor, teacher, publisher, Richard Peabody, wears many literary hats. The author of a novella and three short story collections, he taught graduate fiction writing at Johns Hopkins University for 15 years. His Gargoyle Magazine (founded 1976) will release issue 75 in June 2022. His most recent book, Guinness on the Quay, was published in Ireland (Salmon Poetry, 2019).