The phone rings. A “gray-haired man” asks the girl he is with if she’d rather he not answer it. She is unsure, and asks him what he thinks. Resolving that it won’t make too much difference, the man picks up. His name is Lee.
“Lee?” comes the voice on the other end. “I wake you?”
“Who’s that?” Lee asks. “Arthur?” The caller answers that it is, and then asks Lee if he noticed when “Joanie” – Arthur’s wife – left. Lee looks at the girl, and certain things become clear. The girl is Joanie, and Lee has taken her to his place after a party. He and Arthur work at the same law firm. Arthur is worried about Joanie, who apparently has a tendency to behave rashly and who he suspects of sleeping around. Lee, for his part, consoles his friend but does not let on to the truth.
“Did you happen to notice if she left with the Ellenbogens, by any chance?” Arthur asks. “No, I didn’t Arthur,” comes the reply. “Didn’t she leave with you?” Lee asks if Arthur has tried calling the Ellenbogens. “In the first place,” he adds, “if I know the Ellenbogens, they probably all hopped in a cab and went down to the Village for a couple of hours.” Arthur has a feeling Joanie “went to work on some bastard in the kitchen.”
Lee advises his friend to calm down and try to take a “nightcap” and get some sleep. Arthur, however, continues to vent his frustration, poring out his paranoia and jealousy, explaining that every night he returns home from work he half-expects to find his place crawling with men. Lee argues back that Arthur goes out of his way to “torture” himself, and that he’s “bloody lucky” Joanie is such “a wonderful kid.” Arthur, incensed, snaps back that Joanie is an “animal.” He then proceeds to mock her, noting that she “thinks she’s a goddamn intellectual.”
After it comes out that Arthur just lost a major case for the firm, he betrays his true feelings for Joanie, noting that he will often get vivid memories lodged in his mind of a poem he wrote her years ago – “Rose my color is and white, Pretty mouth and green my eyes” – or the first time he and she “drove up to New Haven for the Princeton game.” “She bought me a suit once,” he adds. “With her own money. […] I mean she has some goddamn nice traits.”
Arthur then asks if he can come over to Lee’s place. Lee is obliged to say yes, but advises that he does not think it a good idea. “I honestly think you should just sit tight and relax till Joanie waltzes in,” he says. “Yeah,” Arthur responds. “I don’t know. I swear to God, I don’t know.”
Moments later, the conversation ends and the girl asks Lee what Arthur said. “You were wonderful,” she exclaims. “God, I feel like a dog!”
The phone rings again. Lee answers. It’s Arthur. He tells his friend that Joanie just “barged in.” He thanks Arthur for all his help, tells a long story to explain Joanie’s tardiness – “apparently Leona got stinking and then had a goddamn crying jag, and Bob wanted Joanie to go out and grab a drink with them somewhere and iron the thing out” – and says that maybe he and Joanie will “get ourselves a little place in Connecticut.”
As with many of his stories, Salinger keeps a certain amount of distance from the events of “Pretty Mouth and Green My Eyes.” His omniscient narrator is not exactly all-knowing; the narrator only has what at his disposal what he can “see” and “hear.” This is to say, there is little in the way of background explanation, off-hand context, or digression in the tale. Its telling proceeds in the way a play or film would, depending solely on physical and concrete indices to impart information to the reader or audience.
The limits of the narrator’s authority prove especially important in “Pretty Mouth and Green My Eyes,” because the story hinges on a secret and a lie. It is possible to read the tale without deducing that the girl in Lee’s room is in fact Joanie. The story without that information is simply the story of a conversation between two colleagues, in which one tries to console the other about his flirtatious, possibly unfaithful wife. It is a story in which the paranoid husband does not earn much empathy, and his friend does a good deed by comforting him and even defending his wife when necessary.
Stick in the twist, however, and the entire thematic shifts. Arthur emerges, at the story’s end, as an almost heroic individual. His lie to Lee is a near-sacrificial way of paying the man back, ensuring that Lee can spend his night without worrying about Arthur’s wife. He knows that by doing so, he is giving up whatever further help Arthur might be able to offer to him – whatever additional consolations, or a physical search for Joanie. He goes ahead nonetheless because he does not want to leave his friend hanging, because he feels responsible for having burdened Lee with his own domestic troubles.
Thus, Arthur’s lie in effect turns the tables. He becomes the consoler, Lee the consoled. And just as Lee lied to Arthur, so does Arthur lie to Lee. That said, the story’s ending remains open. It seems likely that Joanie will eventually return to Arthur, but whether Lee will immediately force her out of his place is uncertain. We can assume that he knew all along the girl with whom he was spending the evening was married to his colleague. The knowledge didn’t do much to deter him from his actions, and his Lee’s first worried phone call does not prompt him to immediately eject Joanie either.
Intriguingly, Joanie herself remains mostly silent for the length of the story. We learn more about her from Arthur’s accounts and recollections than from her own words. She is a quiet spectator to the action, assuming much the same position as the reader – only without the benefit of clearly hearing her husband’s voice.