Clem lived all his life in the mountains of southwestern Virginia, and he didn’t know what to make of all this talk about a Depression. He, his wife and kids got along very well, thank you, in their two-room cabin up in the holler. He planted a patch of tobacco that paid off the damn banker every year, raised a passel of pigs that made good eating every fall, and cooked up the best moonshine for miles around. His wife tended garden so they always had taters, maters and squash, not to mention corn needed for the moonshine. The kids helped their ma with the garden and took care of the chickens. A good person right with the Lord shouldn’t want more than that.
One day he was down at the country store talking around the cracker barrel when the preacher’s wife piped up that she didn’t know if she liked the idea of this brand new theater in downtown Abingdon.
“Dadburned movie pictures ain’t worth talking about.” Clem spat some tobacco juice in a corner, which was shiny and black from years of being spit in.
“Well, Clem, I ain’t talking about no movie picture show,” the preacher’s wife replied in a huff. “It’s like real-life people standing on a stage and spouting lines, prancing about, like they thought they was something fancy.”
“Oh, they’ve been doing that for years and years.” Clem spat again. “They’ve been doing that before there warn’t no motion picture shows. Don’t you know no better than that?”
“Of course, I do, Clem. But I don’t think it’s fitting for a man to stand in front of a bunch of women and children with sweat rolling off him, so close you can see it dripping off his nose. With all that pomade in his hair, glistening black.” The preacher’s wife fluttered her eyes and fanned herself. “Now what was it I was saying?”
“You was all upset by those men sweating on the stage.” Clem chuckled. “I don’t know why you’re getting so hot and bothered about it all. Nobody around here is fool enough to waste their money to go see it.”
“That’s just it, Clem,” the preacher’s wife said. “They ain’t charging no money at all. You bring in a chicken or a ham shank and you get in to see the show.”
“You don’t know what you’re talking about.” Clem spat a really big wad this time; in fact, he didn’t have any tobacco left in his mouth. He might as well go on home.
“But that’s the truth Clem,” the old storekeep Zeke interjected as he lumbered around the counter with his broom. “It’s these damnyankees from New York. They can’t get no work up there so they opened up this theater down here, and they do their playacting for food and might near everything else.”
“Is that so?” Clem took a snot rag out of his pocket and wiped his mouth. “They’re going to starve to death. Ain’t nobody with no common sense that’ll waste a perfectly good chicken on such foolishness.”
“They got a full house every night and two shows on Saturday and Sunday,” Zeke explained.
“Defaming the Lord’s day like that. Me and the ladies Bible league are planning to march with signs and scream Scripture at the sinners as they go in next Sunday,” the preacher’s wife announced.
“Maybe some menfolk should go on Friday night first so you ladies don’t make yourselves look silly,” Clem said, halfway to himself. “I got a leftover cured ham hanging in the barn.”
On Friday night, Clem showed up at the Barter Theater in downtown Abingdon with the cured ham tucked up under his arm. He didn’t think it would be right for the wife and kids be exposed to all this foohfrah until he saw it first. The theater people seemed right glad to see him and his ham and took him to a seat down front. They told him the name of the play was Hamlet. Now that might be right funny—a play about baby pigs.
When the curtain came up, Clem was disappointed. It wasn’t about no baby pigs at all. He could hardly make out what they were saying. It was English all right, but not decent English like they talked in the mountains, but that there fancy English spoke in England. The best he could make out it was about this here college boy who came home to find his daddy dead and his mama married his uncle, and he’s mad because they ate up all the food from the funeral at the wedding, and he didn’t get nothing to eat. Then this college boy sees his daddy’s ghost who tells him his uncle killed him so he could marry the mama.
By this time Clem was fidgeting in his chair something bad. He never had no use for college boys in the first place. If he wanted something to eat he should have gone out and shot a couple of squirrels and made himself a stew. Another thing this college boy did wrong was that he had this real pretty girl who wanted to marry him, but he went off and told her to become a nun. And that poor girl got so upset about being told to become a nun that she jumped in the creek and drowned herself.
Clem would have just gotten up and stormed out of that there theater, but they had set him down in the front row, and he didn’t think it was proper for him to stand up and keep everybody else from seeing the show. It didn’t make no sense at all. At the girl’s funeral, the college boy’s mama says “Sweets to the sweet.” That college boy jumped down in the grave thinking he was gonna get to eat the candy he thought his mama had thrown on the casket, but it turned out she threw in flowers instead. Clem decided the boy wouldn’t have been so moody if his mama just fed him proper.
The end of the show didn’t make any better sense. The college boy and the girl’s brother started a fight right there in front of everybody, and his mama got so upset they’re going to get blood on the good rug that she poisoned herself. When she dropped dead, the college boy decided to take it out on his uncle and ran him through with his sword. Then he dropped dead, probably because he never did get a decent meal through the whole play.
As he was walking out, Clem decided he was going to make a stink over this theater thing.
“Where’s my ham?” he bellowed out.
An older fellow came out of a little office and grabbed Clem by the elbow and took him through another door. Clem decided he got seen to real fast because this man didn’t want the other people to get the idea of asking for their stuff back too. Pretty soon Clem found himself behind the stage where they kept all the people who had put on the play.
“That was the worst dang thing I ever done see,” Clem announced. “I want my ham back.”
Those people looked awful worried, and they stepped away from this table with all the vittles that had been brought in that night. There Clem saw the college boy with a big chunk of his ham hanging out of his mouth.
“Oh forget it,” Clem said as he turned for the door. “He needs it more than I do.”

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