“Residents and Transients” is set in western Kentucky. The protagonist, Mary, narrates the story in her own voice. She announces in the first paragraph, “Since my husband went away to work in Louisville, I have, to my surprise, taken a lover.” From this surprising opening, Mary explains how she finds herself back in Kentucky, living in her former family home.
Three years before the story opens, Mary had returned to Kentucky (after an absence of eight years) in order to care for her ailing parents. Shortly after returning to Kentucky, she married Stephen, a word processor salesman. At the time of her marriage, she agreed to the frequent transfers his job would require, but now, she is not sure that she wants to move away from home again. Nevertheless, Mary herself feels like an outsider in her home community; her long absence has given her an understanding of the world that the local residents do not have.
Before the story opens, Mary’s parents have moved to Florida. At the time of the story, Stephen is in Louisville, looking for a house for them to buy. Mary stays in her parents’ house because she is responsible for selling the home. She loves the house and is not sure she wants to move to Louisville. Mary spends her days caring for the eight cats her parents left and visiting with her lover of three weeks, Larry, the dentist.
Larry and Mary have known each other since they were children, having both grown up in the same area. Larry is content with his life, and he wants Mary to stay with him. Mary seems ambivalent about both her husband and Larry.
Stephen calls Mary regularly, urging her to come to Louisville to see the house he has picked out, but she is not enthusiastic. She discusses financial transactions and visits to financial planners instead of her feelings.
In an important passage, Mary tries to explain to Larry the difference between residents and transients in the cat population. Although she is ostensibly discussing cats, it is clear that she is really trying to say something about her own status as a resident or a transient. She is not truly a resident, because of her long absence. However, neither is she a transient, at least while she is here in her parents’ home.
After eating at a restaurant in Paducah, Larry and Mary are driving home in Larry’s truck. In the road, Mary sees a rabbit with its hind legs smashed, trying frantically with its front legs to get off the road. The sight leaves Mary near hysteria. When the couple get back to the house the phone is ringing, and Larry answers without thinking. It is Stephen. Mary tells him she will be coming to Louisville; but instead of hearing her, he lectures her on the need for flexibility. This lecture upsets her, and she rushes outdoors.
Outside, Mary sees one of her cats walking up the drive. The cat’s eyes shine red and green. The story ends with this image, the eyes like the image of a traffic light both red and green.
Ira Mark Milne (Editor), Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context, and Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, Volume 8, Bobbie Ann Mason, Published by Thomson Gale, 2000.