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Spirits of ammonia 

I'd had a headache that was shakin' my nerves and rattlin' my brain, to quote Jerry Lee Lewis. For the record: Had not been drinking near enough to promote the kind of cranial throbbing I was experiencing, a headache which, like resourceful viral strains and cockroaches, seemed to have developed an immunity to any pain killer, caffeine, or even hair of the dog employed to defeat it.

Enter Rob. "You need a coke 'n' ammonia," he said, exuding surety and the promise of relief. "You mean, the cleaning fluid?" I asked incredulously, thinking of a bottle of Mr. Clean, lemon fresh scent and all. "Well, no; you have to get the pure, pharmaceutical ammonia," he said, drawing out the word like it was highly desirable contraband, Vicodin maybe, or Xanax.

Seems old-fashioned drugstores used to sell coke 'n' ammonias as a headache/hangover remedy. (Of course, they used to sell cocaine cokes too for pep and vigor, and way back, the industrial revolution was almost undermined by handy little bottles of poppy juice--hence the whole "opiate for the masses" concept. At least I think so.)

Rob knew one drugstore, still manned by old-timers and featuring an honest-to-Pete soda fountain with cherry, chocolate and vanilla cokes, that stocked spirits of ammonia. I recalled a '30s cartoon where an uncorked bottle of the stuff yielded spooky spirits singing their own "spirits of ammonia" theme song and wondered, with my new knowledge, if it was an in-joke at the time--a reference to the sort of DT-ridden, Lost Weekend kind of toot that would land you in, as one of my aged, feckless, rail-riding relatives once put it, "the crossbar hotel."

I headed up to the drugstore on my mission. Yes, said the impossibly old pharmacist, there was one bottle left. I flat out told him I was fixing to dose my coke with the stuff. He picked up the small amber bottle, peered at the ancient looking blue label and read, or pretended to. "They don't recommend that anymore," he said. "Course, there were people who used to drink ammonia cokes on a Monday mornin'," he said with a conspiratorial look, "but now it says here 'only for external use.'"

"Well heck, you're still standing," I countered. "'Course, I never did," he said, shooting a look at his grandson, who was helping out that day. I ordered up a vanilla coke at the fountain while he turned away: "Well, that's what I'm supposed to tell you," he said, not looking particularly concerned.

Back at work, Rob, my ammonia pusher, poured two capfuls in his drink and mixed well. I poured one and a half. It tasted vaguely like gin and coke--kind of tasty, all said and done. As for the headache, it did quiet the storm of angry buzzing hornets in my brain. But I also felt just plain weird.

I decided that what I like most is the way the ammonia bottle looks on my bookshelf at work where, should the dire need arise, I can uncap the bottle and let the spirits of ammonia lure me with their pungent promise of relief. But I'm not sure I'll ever drink the stuff again.

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