The Best Short Story I Read in a Lit Mag This Week: “What to Do When Your Spouse is Burning” by Matt Cashion


Picture of many different literary magazines sprawled and overlapping on the floor.

In his short story, “What to Do When Your Spouse is Burning” (Moon City Review), Matt Cashion uses a list of instructions to subtly reveal the dissolution of a marriage.

Cashion’s narrator begins by offering wry examples of what not to do when one’s spouse is burning.

Don’t waste time, at this time, constructing a time-consuming apology.
Don’t say, “I’m sorry I’ve been such an incendiary device lately. I truly am.”
If you make the mistake of constructing an apology while your spouse is burning, do not water it down by attaching excuses. Furthermore, do not introduce language that deflects blame.
Don’t say, “It’s not my fault.”

It’s clear that burning, for the narrator, is a metaphor for anger. We’re witnessing a previous fight between a couple that Cashion smuggles in through a list. He captures a witty, sarcastic narrator using humor to avoid the subject of the argument. He also, in a way, captures the spouse; though she isn’t mentioned, it’s not difficult to imagine her becoming angrier with each mocking response.

Cashion then begins revealing the spouse’s side of the argument more directly, using the protagonists replies to echo the spouse’s words.

Don’t say, “I’d like to respectfully disagree that I have trouble making or keeping friends, which I would have proved once Tim and I built our bonfire and drank a beer and stared into it while I interviewed him on the fire-safety tips he shared with third-graders, although, honestly, one has to wonder whether Tim would even be a good best friend or whether he would offer credible advice because we know his wife was having an affair with the distilled-water delivery man and his own house caught fire seven summers ago…

The narrator tries to lose the argument in the minutiae of day-to-day life. It’s easy to picture the spouse interrupting and saying: you’re missing the point. Cashion develops the argument and relationship further by introducing the professional difficulties that seem to have fueled the argument. The spouse has been working at a job she hates supporting the narrator, who we discover has been working for years, unsuccessfully, on a time machine.

…I was pretty busy myself, revising my blueprints, which yes, I agree has taken too long, but you can’t imagine the pace at which time machine technology continues to evolve…

So is the narrator working on a time machine, actually? Or perhaps the time machine a metaphor—like the burning—and the narrator escapes the present by writing, say, historical fiction? In the end it doesn’t matter, and that seems to be part of Cashion’s point: the bitterness between this couple is deep enough that it probably wouldn’t matter what the narrator did.

Cashion concludes the sections directing what not to do—which make up the lion’s share of the story—by revealing that their relationship has ended, the fire is out, and the spouse has moved on by hooking up with a “quick thinking, kindhearted neighbor” who “pull(s) a guitar from his anus and strum(s) while singing…” The narrator then shifts to begin giving directive of what one should do when their spouse is burning.

…Respect the mess you’ve made.
Forgive the fire; it is innocent.
Take time to shred those silly time machine blueprints you’ve wasted your life on.

Stare at the ashes inside the urn you hope she would have liked and say good night, say good morning, say good afternoon, say goodnight.

Amidst the humor there’s a implicit truth: dead relationships need a proper burial, a job better fit for fire than a time machine.