Sweet (Temptation) and Sour (Retribution).
BY Martin Ough Dealy
Pancho was of mixed blood. He certainly had Mexican Indian and Chinese ancestry but there was also something Spanish about him.
But one could never be sure of anything where Pancho was concerned. He was to prove no ally of mine!
He was slight, balding and of quite indeterminate age. He spoke with a thick accent in a strange version of Spanish or an even less intelligible version of English. He may have spoken Nahuatl and some Chinese dialect as well for all I know. His was an inscrutable, self-effacing nature and he viewed the world through black unfathomable eyes that never looked straight at you, yet seemed all seeing, missing nothing.
Pancho was a permanent fixture in the dusty silver mining town where we lived. He seemed to have been there forever, always in the same place, always the same, strangely blank, figure always lurking somewhere in his shop. I never remember seeing him anywhere else except inside the small scruffy general store that was his living.
His store was in a nondescript building on the corner of two streets with one large wooden and glass framed entrance. This was protected at night and in times of strife by a roller door that was all but impenetrable when shut and locked down.
The long room inside was stacked high with all sorts of goods. There were open sacks of different kinds of grain, there were shelves stacked in no particular order with a variety tinned foods, biscuits and cakes, and an assortment of bottles containing medicines and all kinds of drinks soft and alcoholic.
The general impression of a keg meg was reinforced by various stands and more displays of the seemingly endless variety of goods on offer. These included cigarette cartons, boxes of cigars, piles of fresh ( and not so fresh) fruit and vegetables and great blistered slabs of khaki coloured chicharon made from the deep fried fat off whole pig skins stacked on the old wooden floor without particular regard to hygiene.
Of course there were chilies of all sorts on offer ranging in colour from bright green through brilliant red to deep purple, strings of onions and garlic hanging wherever, and open vats containing all kinds of spices and sweetmeats used in Mexican cooking including the super-rich, very dark brown chili hot sweet and sour chocolate based paste that was a local favourite known as mole. The very thought of mole makes my mouth water.
Naturally Pancho’s store produced its own peculiar and pungent aroma. This was not one particular odour but a very strong mix of all the smells set free by what was on display in the shop garnished with the dust of ages, the produce of the rats and mice and the cockroaches and spiders that shared his home. Yet the shop’s effluvia was enticing and it varied depending on whatever was being cooked that day in the family kitchen buried deep within the building beyond the store where he worked.
Strategically placed close to the entrance was the inevitable wooden counter where Pancho would often stand to complete transactions and ensure that no one left without paying. He would also dispense from this place of surveillance and business focus other specialties like rashers of local streaky bacon cut as thin as paper on an old fashion wheeled bacon cutter powered by a hand crank. There was also a wire cheese cutting device.
Despite its down at heel nature, Pancho’s was a favourite shopping place for the expatriates in the town. None of his few competitors seemed able to cater for the needs of the foreign community so well and at such cheap prices.
So Pancho’s was a regular stop for my mother on her weekly shopping expedition into town. She’d often take me and that was always a treat. Pancho’s shop was a marvellous attraction for a small boy, not just for the mysteries inside its dark recesses, but also for what was on display at the counter.
Nothing else caught my attention quite so strongly as the collection of boiled sweets, chocolates and similar sweetmeats set out on one corner of the counter.
That was my sweet temptation
But my problem was a lack of the wherewithal to satisfy it. I rarely had pocket money. More often than not it had been confiscated by parental authority to compensate for some transgression or other.
My mother rarely paid cash at Pancho’s her routine was simply to go in, choose the things she wanted, have them made up for delivery to the car and, on passing the counter simply say to Pancho something like "Please put that on my account and we will settle as usual at the end of the month".
Progress for me to the next step was a natural one. I could simply copy my mother’s formula. So when the opportunity arose I’d hang back until my mother had left the shop for the car; I’d then make a selection and say to Pancho, "please put that on the bill" or similar - words that gave me the key to his Aladdin’s cave.
It was so easy and I had an accomplice. Pancho raised no objection whatever to this additional sale. With his secretive smile he simply toted up what was owed and handed over the bag
Although I did not know that I had done wrong, my instinct was for self-preservation. I made sure that my mother did not discover what I’d done and managed to sneak into the car with my uneasy conscience and ill-gotten booty.
But retribution was not long in coming.
Money was , as always, very scarce and great care was taken to make sure that ends were met. It was my parents habit at the end of the month to go through their bills before settling them.
Inevitably Pancho’s account came under scrutiny and there was some argument between my parents about the amount of sweets and chocolates that appeared on the account. My mother could not account for this unwarranted expenditure and so she resolved to query Pancho next time she visited his shop.
So it was that my little stratagem for satisfying sweet temptation came to an abrupt and violent end. Pancho, now no friend of mine, had no hesitation in pointing to me as the culprit and perpetrator of this ghastly crime.
So he was paid and I went to face again the anger of my father. Retribution this time was not only the usual loss of pocket money but a thorough whacking as well.
It was certain that I could not count Pancho as an ally ever again!
Sour retribution indeed.