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Tony pulled back the sleeve of his T-shirt to reveal the place where pec met shoulder. A web of purple stretch marks, vivid like a fresh tattoo, was etched deeply into pale, loose skin that drooped toward his armpit.

I asked Tony about the self-discipline it had taken to transform his body.

"You have to understand that everything that comes out of my life is all about being selfish, self-centeredness. That's the basic theme. The idea is, if I do inject this, I will get larger so I will look better to these people and they will think that I am really something. And I think that's it. There is no other motivation behind it. It isn't so much that I really, personally wanted to get to a 405-pound bench press. I mean, that's a big lift. That's eight wheels. I seen other guys doing it, and I seen everybody gathering around them when it was getting ready to happen. When I walk into the room, all eyes are on you because here comes 'that guy.' And that's what it's all about. It's all about vanity. It's all about selfishness. It's all about self-centeredness. It's all about 'Look at me, I'm great.' And, so yeah, I was willing to pay that price."

Tony told me that after his "weight-lifting run," he moved to Las Vegas, where he went to jail for a while. He also started injecting methamphetamine. I wondered if his steroid use made it easier for him to shoot up meth.

"Yeah. That thought crossed my mind. I didn't have a fear of needles. I'd already given myself so many shots.

"While I was in Las Vegas, I was using quite a bit. I was probably using one-sixteenth of an ounce a day. I was easily spending $100 a day. One time I stayed up for 20-some-odd days. My weight was down to 150 pounds. So I'd lost around 100 pounds.

"There's no question about it. My whole life was just extremely discontent. Never really happy. Always searching for something to make me feel okay. To make me feel good. To make me fit in somewhere. And that always looked like drugs or sex or whatever I could possibly fill it with. And, truth be told, I know that there's this void in every man's soul, every person's soul, and it's shaped just like God. I knew something was missing, but I didn't know what it was."

Tony has some buddies out at the Fabulous 7 Motel on the far eastern edge of El Cajon. An early-1960s modernist relic, the 100-room motel's huge pool and vast parking lot recall a hopeful era of big families and long summer road trips. That era faded. Fabulous 7 became a favorite of El Cajon's prostitutes and drug dealers. Two years ago, Set Free Ministries, an Anaheim-based organization whose motto is "Strictly for the Hardcore," took over the place. Set Free is associated with the Southern Baptist Convention, and Fabulous 7 is now at any given time home to almost 200 recovering drug addicts and former inmates trying to piece their lives together.

Spanky is one of Tony's buddies. Five foot nine, 220 pounds, Spanky has the breadth and depth of a small refrigerator. His forearms are Popeye-size. On the muggy afternoon I met Spanky, I arrived too early at Fabulous 7. While I waited, a young woman in a bulky black parka sat in front of one of the motel rooms. She stared at me. Her hair was dyed jet black. She'd powdered her face pale white. Her chin and cheeks left chalky smudges on the collar of her big black coat. She'd outlined her eyes with thick black mascara. Sweat or tears had caused the mascara to run. She puffed on a cigarette pinched between forefinger and thumb.

I was relieved when Spanky appeared. But he, too, wore his face as a kind of mask. He had the closed, immobile expression and the almost military stiffness I associated with gang members.

"I've reaped what I've sown," Spanky told me.

We went and sat in a coffee shop attached to Fabulous 7. The waitresses recognized Spanky. They called out to him by name and waved at him and smiled. His expression, which had been unreadable, relaxed.

"Doesn't it come natural for man to want to get in trouble?" Spanky said when I asked about his past.

"Was it peer pressure, or was it just my own choosing? I'd have to say it was my own choosing. You know, my parents did a very good job with me, and I was the one who chose to do what I did. In my high school years I kind of settled down a little bit. I had the same girlfriend for my three years in high school, and she ended up marrying a cop when we graduated. A Los Angeles sheriff. And I got to say now, looking back, I was so obsessed with her that I just decided to become the outlaw. That's what I decided to do. When things don't go our way, we say, 'I'll show you. I'm gonna just beat myself in the head with this hammer.' And of course the drugs became an integral part of my life. Even though I had a lot of friends who probably used a lot, I can't say they were addicts or alcoholics, because at some point they just grew up and they stopped. But I had that addict thinking. And it's not the chemical, it's the thinking. And I just couldn't stop. I just got deeper and deeper and deeper into it."

Spanky told me he was 52 years old and that he grew up in Long Beach.

"My first run-in with the law, I was ten years old. It was the shore police. I'm glad my dad was out to sea. I had a newspaper route there on the Navy base. And me and a friend were going through these bomb shelters they had down there then. We went into one. We were hunting for centipedes or scorpions or something like that. Horny toads and lizards. We made some torches, and we ended up gutting the whole inside of that bomb shelter. But we didn't mean to do it. We didn't do it on purpose. Then I got arrested for drugs when I was 16 years old -- then it was marijuana. By the time I was 16, I was popping pills. Even though I got a late start, I was using methamphetamine and heroin by the time I was 18 years old."

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