Plague Detected in Squirrels: Blood Tests on Animals Captured in Agoura Park Are Positive
--Headline in The Los Angeles Times
The unusual events described in this chronicle occurred in 194- at Oran. Everyone agreed that, considering their somewhat extraordinary character, they were out of place there. For its ordinariness is what strikes one first about the town of Oran.
--Albert Camus, "The Plague"
It was with a mixture of impatience and consternation that Dr. Bernard Malmains emerged from his medical salon in the provincial capital of Agoura to discover a dying squirrel struggling up the staircase, only to expire with a cough on the landing. Preoccupied with MediCal reimbursements and federal tax reform, Malmains merely kicked the pathetic little creature aside and continued on his way.
But before long, dead squirrels began to turn up more frequently. Malmains' concierge discovered three in the cellar, and dozens more appeared all over town. Squirrel corpses lined the on-ramp to the freeway, delaying traffic, and one could barely enter the parking lot at Ralphs without an ugly squishing sound under tire.
The public was becoming alarmed. There were cries for the authorities to act. Concerned, Malmains rang up the head of the Agoura Medical Assn., with whom he was acquainted, but the man refused to take steps. It was up to the Prefect, he insisted.
Then, as suddenly as they had appeared, the dead squirrels went away. With a sigh of relief, the citizens of Agoura went about their business, pleased that this disruption of the quotidian order in their tidy city was at an end. Agoura returned to the ordinariness that was its heart and soul.
Several days later, however, under darkening skies and humid heat, Malmains was called to treat his concierge, Henri. The man appeared normal except for two things: his exceeding stillness and his constant, almost grotesque yawning.
His wife reported that he had become listless the night before, complaining of boredom and dissatisfaction. She told him he must be tired because he was yawning so much. He said he wasn't even aware of it. But the next day the yawning increased, until now he was transformed into a kind of human yawning machine, glassy-eyed and dazed.
Alarmed, Malmains tied a dish towel around Henri's head, so that at least he had to yawn with his mouth shut, and returned to his office.
He was confronted there was a roomful of yawning men, women and children, their gaping mouths contributing unpleasantly to the humidity. Terrified, Malmains dashed into his examination room and phoned Cheveau, the city's leading veterinarian.
"I was about to call you, mon cher," Cheveau said. "You realize what we have here, non?"
Malmains felt the back of his neck prickle.
"Well, it could be anything . . . "
"Nonsense, monsieur. You know as well as I do--it's clearly plague."
" Plague?!? But there are no buboes to lance, no raging fevers in these patients. They merely lie there and yawn. The biggest problem will be malnutrition. How will they eat?"
"Malmains, I see that you aren't keeping up with your journaux. There is a new manifestation of plague. It begins with squirrels, chipmunks, in northern climes even moose. These creatures catch it from human carriers, but it is far more lethal to them. Malmains--they are literally bored to death."
"Mais non! The plague of boredom? In Agoura?"
"Yes, Malmains, the very one."
It was true. All over the city, citizens who could muster the energy drove about with dish towels circling their faces, bleary-eyed and dishevelled as they silently yawned. Others were too bored even to get out of bed.
On orders from the provincial governor, the Prefect was finally forced to act. Agoura was closed. The off- and on-ramps to the Ventura Freeway were shut down. Commerce ground to a halt. Preachers blamed the plague on the sinfulness of Agoura residents, but most were too bored to respond to hell fire, or even brimstone.
Malmains and his colleagues could do little; no serum or vaccination had yet been invented. The plague had to run its course.
And so it did. Gradually, in the evenings, the blue light of prime-time television glowed again within the homes of Agoura. Work resumed. Clearly, Malmains observed, the survivors had developed antibodies, leaving them with a particularly high boredom threshold. People appeared in public parks, studying their insurance policies. Young couples, just for fun, would wander down to the K mart to browse. Tour groups were organized to study the undistinguished architecture of the community. People sat around watching professional football again.
Even Henri, the concierge, had begun to improve, picking up his old duties in the building. When Malmains stopped in to see him, his wife said with a smile that he had driven out to Thousand Oaks, looking for some excitement.
Malmains smiled back, gratified. The patient was clearly cured.
Editor's note: Perry Riddle is on vacation. Guest columnist Daniel Akst is a Times staff writer.