Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 383
Charles Johnson’s short story "Exchange Value" is about two brothers, Loftis and Cooter, who want to be wealthy. The brothers live next door to an elderly woman, Elnora Bailey, who they find peculiar and believe to be out of town because they haven’t seen her in awhile. They decide to rob her.
Bailey’s apartment is rigged with booby traps. Upon entering her apartment, the brothers discover that Bailey is a hoarder—her apartment is full of trash, broken belongings, and even feces in cans. They also find a newspaper clipping which tells them that Bailey had inherited huge amounts of wealth from a family she used to work for. Although they are disgusted by the conditions she lives in, they still intend to rob her.
As the men rummage through her apartment, they make their way to her bedroom, where they find Bailey dead and in a disgusting state of decomposition. Cooter thinks they should abandon the idea of robbing her, but Loftis convinces him that they should go through with their plan. They end up taking things of value and $900,000 in cash from her apartment.
With their apartment now full of Bailey’s valuables, Cooter takes off on a mini-shopping spree. Loftis, on the other hand, stays at home, and as Cooter discovers when he returns, sets up booby traps to protect their new wealth. Loftis is now in a state of fear—he is terrified they will lose everything they’ve just gained and he’ll go back to being poor. He goes to work, determined to hang on to his new money, and Cooter stays behind. When Loftis doesn’t return for days, Cooter worries about what has happened to him and also is at a loss of how to function. He’s afraid of being caught with Bailey’s things, so when the toilet breaks and he runs out of food, Cooter begs and lives as he did before—impoverished. At one point he catches a glimpse of Bailey’s face as her body is being brought from the building, and he believes he can see the same fear they are experiencing.
The men are now living just as Elnora Bailey did: as though they are poor and in fear. Their lives are worse than before.