“Pretty Mouth and Green My Eyes” by J.D. Salinger

Last week I received a surprise birthday book package that included J.D. Salinger’s Nine Stories (the serendipity of long-ago-added-to-Amazon-wishlist books). I’d read about half the stories in high school, and remembered liking them—especially “For Esmé, with Love and Squalor.” But on the whole the book is rather different from what I remember. I didn’t remember the heavy focus, in several stories, on the psychological aftermath of World War II on the men who fought it—and didn’t. And it also seems even more different from the way I remember Catcher in the Rye, which makes some sense, since I never cared for that book.

While I still enjoyed “For Esmé,” this time “Pretty Mouth and Green My Eyes” stuck out as effective. It’s very simple: a gray-haired man and a girl are in bed when the phone rings; the gray-haired man answers; the call is from a man, Arthur, whose wife has not come home from the party they and the gray-haired man were at that evening. The gray-haired man calmly talks Arthur down, as Arthur drunkenly rants about his wife, her infidelity, and other personality flaws. The gray-haired man assures Arthur that Joanie will walk in any minute, after a wild outing in the Village, and they finally hang up. Arthur calls back a moment later to say that he was right, Joanie just came in, and everything is grand.

Of course, all through the first phone call, we are sure that Joanie is the very girl in bed with the gray-haired man. And we are sure that the gray-haired man, while genuinely trying to calm Arthur, is also carefully deflecting suspicion—and looking down on the man he’s cuckolding. Nothing at all says that. On the contrary, Salinger is careful not to say it. The girl’s eyes are a focal point; first they are described as “very, however disingenuously, large, and so blue as to appear almost violet.” Later, they, “more just open than alert or speculative, reflected chiefly their own size and color.” Arthur, beating himself up over the poem that gives the story its title*, says “it used to remind me of her. She doesn’t have green eyes—she has eyes like goddam sea shells, for Chrissake.” That sounds compatible, but what do eyes like sea shells look like? Are they blue, almost violet? There are lots of sea shells.

That’s not really the point. All this certainty builds up that, though it remains unsaid, Joanie is the girl, until finally the gray-haired man hangs up with Arthur and there is hardly any wiggle room left, the girl feels “‘like an absolute dog!'”; the man says “the whole thing’s so fantastic….” He’s pulled it off, though, Arthur has gone to bed. He pities Arthur, and aside from, you know, sleeping with his wife, he wishes Arthur well. But when Arthur calls back, to say never fear, Joanie is back, all is well—it is too much. “‘What?’ said the gray-haired man, and bridged his left hand over his eyes, though the light was behind him.” This is too pitiful. At first, the gray-haired man simply can’t speak, but finally he manages to end the call. Disgusted, he rejects Joanie as well. This is all much too close for comfort.

The jar is perfect. We are as surprised as the gray-haired man is to hear that Joanie has barged in. It makes no sense. What is happening? We experience the realization with the gray-haired man, and his reaction is ours. We want to shield ourselves from what Arthur will say next, from the optimistic nonsense he is peddling now that he realizes what a fool he’s made of himself. And for us too, Joanie has gone from a nice kid with good taste to a cruel child, an animal, destroying a man in this way. Very emotionally effective, in a series of such stories.

*According to the story, the poem, “Rose my color is and white, Pretty mouth and green my eyes,” was something Arthur “sent” to Joanie, that “remind[ed]” him of her, strongly implying that he didn’t actually write it, as seems to be a common internet misconception. Is it a real poem? Googling has gotten me nowhere.

5 comments to “Pretty Mouth and Green My Eyes” by J.D. Salinger

  • I recently popped back into Nine Stories, too, after nearly 20 years, and I also found “PMAGME” to be one of the stand-out stories. I think it’s the sort of story that so many post-Salinger students of creative writing aspire to imitate, whether they realize it or not: a sketch that takes otherwise forgettable characters and uses quick details and colloquial dialogue to give a specific interpersonal conundrum universal meaning. At the very least, it does take a pretty good writer to keep readers interested in that seemingly rambling phone conversation…

  • Tzvia Offenberg

    This is a story with a twist, the twist being that although we have benn misled to believe that Lee is the liar and the betraying friend and Arthur is a pitiful victim, it appears in the end that he is not less of a liar than Lee, when he invents the story of his wife’s return to the nest, while trying to take some advantage of his frien’d relations at the law office in order to straighten up somehow his loss in court.
    The stroy is about a world based on lies, betrayal of trust and friendship, adultery and making a profit of every situation (like getting soem free legal advice from a lawyer-friend at a party), policemen who might be hiding in your closet after sleeping with your wife, a judge who doesn’t really care about justice and lawyers who are cheaters and liars in real life. This is a fallen world in which there is no true love (the relationship between “the girl” and the “grey-haired man” is to discrepent to be one of lov or even true lust),no trust , no sincerity, no honesty, no justice, no innocence.
    The cover story is only a symbolic chatter hinting between the lines what the true perspective of the writer is.
    Conneticut, as mentioned in the story, is an abode where once can find refuge from the corruption of the modern world, a place where one can find some serenity and truth in a natural environment.
    No wonder Salinger himself sought refuge there in real life and left everything behind him.

  • When I was in college at UT-Austin, my distinguished professor, Dr. Gerald Langford, told us in the class that when Arthur calls Lee back, it is obvious that Arthur is wise to what is going on with Lee and Joanie, and this is just his subtle way of communicating that.

    But I have never found any evidence, or even indication, of that in the story. I would like to know what other readers think.

  • Richard

    The grey haired man while intensely adroit , he thinks , at suspending Alex’s inclination to suicide , to cut his throat , cannot control his own desire to die – if not burn in hell – the anti-Christ , the deceiver , the adulterer – while he betrays his “friend” as a Judas figure , like Judas , he , throws away the spoils of his deceit and hangs himself – i.e. burns himself to death through a fire on his bed sheets – even as Christ vicariously endured hell for His people’s sins, so the grey haired man shall endure hell for his sins

  • b s

    I haven’t read it, but from what I gather, is it impossible that since we never know the woman’s name, she’s just some OTHER poor guy’s wife, while Arthur’s call back is valid, making lee’s surprise directed to Arthur’s “everything is grand” when it’s clearly just on the upswing of an emotional roller coaster (Arthur’s lying to himself)?

    I see less about lies than ambiguity here… which i think is where all the dirtiest communication happens; it’s entirely possible that the ethical conundrum we’re supposed to feel is just that of poor communication, no? it doesn’t matter if Arthur’s wife is cheating or not; they haven’t communicated effectively enough for him to trust/predict her… or the prediction is that she’s a cheat, and he’s a chump. …making Lee the chump-maker of any guy whose wife is feeling guilty in his bed AND making the lovers chumps in turn (“takes one to know one” style) while they lay in his bed thinking they’ve got morals because they feel bad in front of each other, while instead they just do whatever they want and “show” how bad they feel to excuse accountability for their behavior.

    … certainly a provocative theme!
    thanks for leaving your notes here everyone