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Last Updated on August 7, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 540

In "Exchange Value" by Charles Johnson, two brothers, Loftis and Cooter, break into the apartment of their neighbor Miss Bailey to burgle it. No one has seen her for weeks, and, as the narrator states (in the same colloquial language he uses throughout), the brothers thought she would be an "easy mark" for robbery, because she is an eccentric outsider and an older woman.

She had been living alone for twenty years in 4-B down the hall from Loftis and me, long before our folks died—a hincty, half-bald West Indian woman with a craglike face, who kept her door barricaded, shutters closed and wore the same sorry looking outfit—black wingtip shoes, crop fingered glove in winter, and a man's floppy hat.

They also did not expect her to be home.

Her mailbox be full, and Pookie White, who run the thirty-ninth Street Creole restaurant, he say she ain't dropped by in days to collect the handouts he give her so she can get by.

Unfortunately, that proves not to be the case. Following a strange smell into her bedroom, Loftis lifts up her sheets to reveal her dead decaying body.

Loftis, looking away, lifted her bedsheets and a knot of black flies rose. I stepped back and held my breath. Miss Bailey be in her long-sleeved flannel nightgown, bloated, like she’d been blown up by a bicycle pump, her old face caved in with rot, flyblown, her fingers big and colored like spoiled bananas . . . Maggots clustered in her eyes, her ears, and one fist-sized rat hissed inside her flesh.

Cooter faints at the sight of her, yet the two still stay in the apartment, looking for the money they are positive that the old lady has stashed away. They find what they want in an article hidden in her Bible.

Elnora Bailey, forty-five, a Negro housemaid in the Highland Park home of Henry Conners, is the beneficiary of her employer's will on the Providence, shortly after the voyage of the Mayflower. The family flourished in the early days of the 1900s.

Looking around her apartment filled with rubbish, they find it hard to believe that this impoverished woman had been sitting on a goldmine all this time. Perhaps, Loftis astutely observes, she was too used to being poor to do anything worthwhile with it.

"Way I see it," he say, "this was her one shot in a lifetime to be rich, but being country, she had backward ways and blew it."

The boys react in different ways to their newfound riches. Cooter heads into town, stuffs himself full of food, and buys $250 worth of clothes. Loftis stays in the brothers' apartment, changes the locks, and protects their newfound wealth. Loftis, angry that his brother bought clothes, tells him,

The instant you buy something you lose the power to buy something.

At the end of the story, Cooter finds a coin in his brother's pocket that Loftis had picked up off the streets on his way back from work. As he looks at it, he wonders if, like Miss Bailey, they have just been too poor to enjoy being rich.

Maybe it didn't have to be like that for us—did it?—because we could change. Couldn't we?

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