Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 495
There are three characters in the short story "Exchange Value": the eighteen-year-old narrator, Cooter, his thirty-year-old brother Loftis, and the elderly Miss Bailey.
As the narrator, Cooter has a very young, contemporary-sounding voice, starting the story with the same colloquial language he continues with.
Me and my brother Loftis came in by the old lady's window. There was some kinda boobytrap that shoulda warned us that Miss Bailey wasn't the easy mark we made her to be.
Cooter and his brother have broken into Miss Bailey's apartment in search of the hidden stash they are sure she has hidden in there, but, as Cooter states, he does not have a good feeling about it. He says he is neither "good at the gangster stuff" nor particularly brave. When he sees Miss Bailey's dead body, for example, he immediately faints.
In comparison, his older brother Loftis is seen as the go-getter in their family and, it seems, Cooter's guardian after their parents passed away. It is Loftis who, unlike Cooter, works, and it is Loftis who seems to have organized the burglary, and in some detail. For example, he knows from Pookie White that Miss Bailey hasn't gone around to Pookie's restuarant to pick up handouts for days.
As Cooter says about his brother,
He graduated fifth at DuSable High School, had two gigs, and, like Papa, he be always wanting the things white people had out in Hyde Park . . . Loftis, he the kinda brother who buys Esquire, sews Hart, Schaffner and Marx labels in Robert Hall suits, talks properlike, packs his hair with Murrays and took classes in politics and stuff . . .
Their differences are highlighted by the different ways they react to finding the $900,000. Cooter immediately goes out and spends the money on clothes and food, while Loftis stays at home and guards it. When Cooter comes back from his shopping spree, Loftis does what he has done every day for years: go to work. As Loftis tells his brother, "The instant you buy something you lose the power to buy something."
Like Miss Bailey—who, as the reader can see from the state of her apartment and the stories Cooter tells about her begging for money, appears to be quite impoverished—Loftis struggles with the idea of being rich. He may be more intelligent and more organized than his brother, but he is also more set in his ways. He has been poor all of his life and doesn't know anything different.
On the other hand, Cooter, based on the language he uses, seems to be more enmeshed in the modern world. As he indicates at the beginning of the story, he later surprised everybody by becoming more successful than his brother. The reasons why are clear: unlike his brother and Miss Bailey, Cooter understood the modern world enough to take advantage of the money. He may have been scared of the dead body, but he wasn't scared of making a success of himself.